The world has gotten more and more connected in the last few decades, making the travel experience easier and more affordable for many of its citizens.
Still, citizens of countries with the most powerful passports (passports that offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to many destinations around the world) are required to apply for visas in advance for some countries.
In this post, we’ll cover everything about visas, including how to know if you need one, what’s usually required to get one, and how to apply for a visa.
1. What is a Visa?
A visa is an official document that allows you to enter a foreign country legally. The visa is usually stamped or glued into your passport, though some visas are provided electronically and never physically attached to your passport.
While different types of visas could grant you access to a country, like a temporary visa for travel, a permanent immigrant visa, student visa, asylum visa, business visa, and so on, we’ll focus this post on travel visas exclusively.
Travel visas allow you to enter a foreign country for touristic and leisure purposes only and stay for a predetermined amount of time. These visas do not entitle you to work or engage in any business activities in such country.
2. How to Know if You Need a Visa to Visit a Specific Country?
Which country requires you a visa to grant you access depends on the nationality of your passport.
For example, as of 2020, Japanese passport holders have the best passport in the world, with access to 191 destinations without a visa or with a visa-on-arrival. On the opposite end of the spectrum, citizens of Afghanistan can only access 26 destinations visa-free or with a visa-on-arrival.
The US and the UK currently rank number eight, giving access to 184 destinations.
There are various ways in which you could check if you need a visa for your trip.
The easiest and most accurate is using the search feature on VisaHQ, where you input your citizenship and the country your visiting, and it’ll tell you whether or not you need to apply for a visa and for how long it is valid.
VisaHQ is a service that makes the visa application process as easy as possible. They are an excellent service to consider during your travel planning process if you wish not to have to worry about the visa application logistics.
I’ve used them before for some complicated visa application processes like Kazakhstan and Russia’s visa.
Even if you don’t use their services to get a visa, I recommend checking for free the visa requirements with them.
Another option is to search on Wikipedia. Do a Google or Wikipedia search with “visa requirements for (country) passport,” and it will show you the countries that will require you to apply for a visa with your specific passport.
The third option is to search directly with your country’s Department of State travel website. American citizens can check all the entry and exit requirements for each country in the US Department of State travel page.
3. What is the difference between a Visa, an e-Visa, Visa-on-Arrival, and a Travel Permit?
A traditional visa is usually obtained before the trip, and typically, it is stamped or glued into your passport. The visa typically includes your name, passport number, place of birth, the reason for travel and expiration date.
An eVisa, or electronic visa, is a digital visa that is stored in a database rather than stamped or glued into your passport. The e-Visa includes all the same information as the traditional visa, and it is typically done over the internet. If approved, you’ll print the e-visa document which you’ll present when traveling.
A Visa-on-Arrival, on the other hand, is obtained at the airport or border crossing. These are usually cheaper than regular visas, and the process tends to take minutes for approval.
Travel Permits are very similar to visas, but the application process is much easier. In some cases, you can get them by simply paying the fee and giving minimal information like name and passport number.
For example, the Travel Permit to visit Cuba can be purchased at the airport during check-in. Europeans traveling to the US can buy the ESTA online, and Americans traveling to Australia can also get the ETA online.
4. What is a Transit Visa?
Different from the visas mentioned above, this visa is meant only for people transiting a country for a few hours to a few days.
The main reason for a transit visa is to allow you to stay at the airport or get a hotel for the night if you have a long layover, but in some cases, these visas can be advantageous to see a bit of the country at least.
I got to visit Saudi Arabia on a 3-day transit visa, as well as Qatar on a free 24-hour visa (versus paying the expensive regular visa).
On both occasions, these destinations were just a layover on the way to my intended destination. Still, I extended the layover to the maximum allowed by a transit visa to see the most I could.
5. How to Apply for a Visa?
There are many ways in which you can apply for a visa. I’ll explain them from the easiest to the most complex.
This is the easiest of them all. You just arrive at the airport, fill out a form (if required), pay the fee (if any), and you’re good to go!
For example, Egypt’s visa on arrival process is basically just lining up at a booth to pay $25, then head straight to immigration to get stamped in. Cambodia’s visa on arrival is similar, though you have to fill a form at the airport. Very easy, though.
If all you need is a travel permit like an ESTA, ETA, ETIAS, or similar that you can get online, all you have to do is go online to the official website, fill out the application, pay, and get your confirmation receipt within minutes.
These are the official websites for the following:
While you don’t have to print the confirmation, since it is recorded in the system, it’s always recommended to have a paper confirmation in case you’re asked for it at the airport.
The process to get an e-visa is similar to an online travel permit, but these could take a few hours to a few days to process.
I always recommend applying directly at the official government’s e-visa website or a reputable visa service like VisaHQ (which, of course, charges a service fee over the e-visa fee). But for e-visas, I always prefer the former.
How do you know if it is the official government’s website?
This one can be tricky, as there are hundreds of random visa websites out there.
What I do is go to the US Department of State travel website (the “Country Information” section) and check on the “Entry and Exit Requirements” of my destination. If the country has an official e-visa application website, it will be listed there.
For example, you can check their Uzbekistan page to see the listing of the official Uzbek e-visa page.
This way, you guarantee you’re paying the right fee and getting the right e-visa. This tip is useful to any citizenship, not just Americans.
These are usually the more complicated ones since you need to apply beforehand, and they typically require more documentation to process it.
Among the things required could include proof of a round-trip ticket, bank statements, a letter of invitation, a passport validity of no less than 6-months, proof of accommodation, the reason for travel, and more.
Not all visa applications are the same, and the requirements mentioned above will vary depending on the destination and your citizenship. Usually, they don’t require all of the above, but it’s best to check directly with the destination’s embassy or consulate in your country.
Some visas can be fully applied online, partially online to send your passport by mail or in-person to the embassy, or in-person with an attendant at the embassy or consulate.
For example, for my Saudi Arabia transit visa, I filled the application and paid online, and then went to the Saudi Arabian consulate in NYC to deliver the requested documentation to get the final approval and the stamp in my passport.
Since these applications can be complicated, I do recommend using VisaHQ for these visas since they guide you through the process and can expedite the whole process for you – especially when Invitation Letters are requested.
6. What is an Invitation Letter for a Visa, and How to Get One?
Some countries will require you an Invitation Letter, which is like a letter someone gives you saying they are inviting you to their country.
Depending on the country, you can get the invitation letter via your tour company, through a visa company, or via someone you know in the country.
For example, for my trip to Iran, I got my invitation letter (which they call an “authorization code”) via Intrepid Travel, the tour company I used to travel the country. By the way, a highly recommended tour! I did the same for my trip to North Korea.
For Pakistan, since I was traveling solo and didn’t know anyone in the country, I paid a local tour company to get the invitation letter, even when I was not traveling with them.
For Kazakhstan and Russia, I used the Invitation Letter services that sites like VisaHQ offer, since I was already getting the visa through them.
Sure, it costs more than getting the visa and invitation letter by yourself, but the fact that you don’t have to worry or deal with the application process and bureaucracy makes it worth it. And they are capable of expediting it too!
7. Can You Get a Visa While Abroad?
Yes! For most cases.
This will depend on your country of citizenship and the destination, but most countries allow you to get a visa in a different country from your own.
If applying for an e-visa or online travel permit, it doesn’t matter where you are as it’s done online. If you need to do the process in-person, you could visit the embassy, consulate, or permanent mission of the country you’ll be visiting.
For example, I applied for my 10-year visa to Brazil when I was in Morocco. All I had to do was visit the Embassy of Brazil in Rabat, Morocco with all my documents, and in less than two hours, I had my visa approved and ready.
I’ve also made this other risky move twice, which is an option, but not recommended. When I was in Belize, I needed to get my Indian visa.
Still, Belize has no Indian Embassy, consulate, or mission, so I filled the application by hand and submitted all my documents, including my passport, via certified mail to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC.
This meant I stayed in Belize with no passport for about two weeks! Again, not recommended, but it’s a last resort if needed.
The embassy then mailed my passport and visa to my parents’ house in the US (since they won’t send it abroad), and then they mailed it to me in Belize.
If you’re a US citizen, you can get a passport duplicate for this kind of situation! I learned from that experience and now always travel with both US passports.
8. What is a Single Entry, Double Entry, and Multiple Entry Visa?
As the name says, a single entry visa will allow you to enter the country once. That means once you exit the country, you will not be allowed back in unless you apply for another visa.
A double-entry allows for two entries to the country within the visa’s validity period—for example, two entries within a year of issue. And multiple entries allow you to enter the country as many times as you want within the visa’s validity.
Multiple entries, though, can come with time restrictions. For example, my Brazilian ten year, multiple entry visa allowed me to enter the country as many times as I wanted, as long as I never stayed for more than 90 days in a span of 180 days.
After those 180 days ended, I could spend another 90 days in the country, spread as I wanted.
9. For How Long Can You Stay in a Country?
This will depend on the country and your citizenship. I recommend checking the visa requirement Wikipedia pages mentioned above (on tip #2) or your country’s department of state travel section to get the latest information.
For example, with my US passport, I can stay in Thailand for up to 30 days, in Brazil for up to 90 days every 180 days, and in Georgia for up to 365 days! It varies drastically.
10. Can you enter the country post-COVID?
These days there’s a new normal in travel that changes constantly. Now, in addition to all of the above mentioned, you should also check if the country is welcoming your citizenship or anyone for that matter.
This map shows you the current requirements per country. Which are open, which have their borders closed, which are being restrictive and requiring you to quarantine, and so on. It updates every 15 minutes to keep up to date with this ever-changing situation. Make sure to check it before making any travel plans.
In addition, what are the new post-COVID requirements to enter? Many ask for a negative test taken in the last 72 hours and proof of travel insurance, so make sure you purchase that travel insurance before departing.
11. Things to Check and Documents You Should Have Available When Applying for a Visa
• List the Requirements
First of all, check all of their visa requirements via VisaHQ or their official website. Compile them physically or digitally, depending on the application method.
• Have passport photos
Many visas, including e-visas, require you to submit passport photos. These should be with a white background, without glasses or hats, and looking straight to the camera.
I always travel with a few physical passport photos with me, as well as with a digital version.
• Verify if your passport is valid for at least six months
Most countries around the world require that your passport has at least six months’ validity from the entry or exit date of your trip. I always make sure that my passport has more than six months from the last day of my trip.
• Make sure your passport has at least two empty pages
Most countries require you to have at least two empty passport pages to approve your visa. One page will have the visa, while the other will have the entry and exit stamp when you visit the country.
• Check for how long will the visa be valid
Whether it’s single, double, or multiple entries, make sure the validity of the visa will cover your entire trip. Some visas are valid for just 30 days after issued, which means you must apply for the visa within 30 days of departure.
Usually, those visas with short validity only require you to enter the country within the validity period. Then you can stay for as long as legally allowed, even if the visa expired.
• Have your onward and return ticket (if required)
Some visas require proof of a round-trip ticket to grant the visa, but even if they don’t, many immigration officers or airline check-in agents ask for evidence of a return flight to allow you to board or enter the country.
Here’s a trick I do sometimes when I need to show proof of my return tickets when I’m still not sure of purchasing a specific flight. When booking on the American Airlines website, the airline allows you to put a flight itinerary on hold for free for up to 24 hours, if the departure happens more than 7 days away from the booking date.
So, I put on hold a random round trip flight to the destination and print the on hold confirmation email as my “proof.” If I’m not interested in that flight, the hold will cancel itself automatically within 24 hours, and I would have not lost anything since it was free.
This other post is full of tricks that’ll help you find the cheapest airfare.
• Have all your vaccines up to date
You should be up to date on your vaccines before you leave. Visit a travel medical clinic or your primary physician to get the necessary shots according to your trip’s destinations.
Some shots you should consider having up to date are Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Polio, Meningitis, Typhoid/Diphtheria, a Tetanus booster, and MMR booster.
Some countries, especially those in areas affected by Yellow Fever, do require a Yellow Fever vaccination proof to let you in.
Consider carrying Malaria pills if you’re traveling to a country in a “Malaria zone”.
Get additional info:
- CDC’s Malaria Table
- CDC Traveler’s Heath recommendations
- World Health Organization’s Country-specific Reports
• Buy travel insurance
Many countries now require you to have travel insurance to grant you the visa or to allow you to enter the country. Still, even if it was not required, it is always recommended to travel with travel insurance. I recommend WorldNomads travel insurance. In this post, I share everything you should look for when purchasing travel insurance.
• Have proof of your accommodation booking
Many countries require you to provide an address where you’ll be staying, and proof of such accommodation booking (or family or friend’s address).
My little trick to comply with this, even if I’m not sure of where I want to stay (or if I’ll get the visa approved), is to book a fully refundable hotel on Booking.com. Depending on the trip, I reserve the full trip or just the first few days in the first city.
If I don’t get approved, I can cancel it, no questions asked!
If you’re staying with family or friends, ask them to write a letter stating you’re staying with them, including their address, ID number, and a photocopy of their documents.
This other post is full of tips that’ll help you find cheap accommodation.
• Have proof of funds
Not many countries ask for this, but for some visas, you must show proof of income via bank statements, paychecks, or a notarized letter.
What you need to show is that you have enough funds to pay for your trip and get back home. Each country will tell you what’s acceptable as proof of income/funds, and in some cases, which is the threshold. This varies drastically between countries and which citizenship is applying for the visa.
Now that you know how to apply for your next visa, are you ready to start planning that next trip?
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