Many people who aren’t that seasoned in world travel (that was once me) are completely oblivious that they may need a special “visa” to enter another country. But it’s true: many countries require a visa in order to visit.
Types of Visas
Difficulty obtaining visas vary greatly…
-Visa on arrival: Many countries issue a “visa on arrival.” That means when you land at the airport, you stand in line to register for a visa. Usually you show your passport and pay a small fee. Often you’ll need to disclose the address where you’re staying and show your return ticket home.
-eVisa: Countries like India and Cambodia and many more offer “eVisas.” These are visas you’ll apply for online. You’ll receive an approval (hopefully) via email which you’ll need to print and present to immigration upon entering the country you’re visiting. Beware of “fake” eVisa websites. I was almost tricked when applying for a Vietnamese visa. There are many fake eVisa websites that will steal your money and personal information. Check the validity of the website twice when applying an eVisa. When in doubt, contact the country’s embassy directly. I was almost duped!
-Visa in advance with passport: These are the most difficult, only because it involves turning in your passport to an embassy, and leaving it in their hands for days, while your visa is processed. And what if the embassy for Burkina Faso is in Washington DC and you live in California? Luckily there are private visa services that take care of everything, but not without a fee, and it can get quite expensive. For example, a country might charge $120 for a visa, and then the visa courier service may change another $100. However, I have found these visa services to be worth every penny they charge. After all, you don’t want your passport just floating around out there, with no guarantee to return!
-Multiple country visas: Some areas of the world offer visas that are valid for multiple countries. For example, this year I used an East African visa to travel between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. It was very handy and saved me money, as opposed to buying separate visas for all three different nations.
Letter of Invitation
A few countries make it really difficult to get into, and even require an official “letter of invitation.” It’s no guarantee, but I’ve been able to fulfill this requirement in the past by asking my hotel and/or tour company to provide such letter. Don’t worry, you probably won’t be traveling to South Sudan in the near future–very few countries require this extra step. And if they do, try your hotel or tour guide. It’s really just more a formality.
Financial and Employment Records
Other countries require proof of financial resources. Again, this is the exception to the rule, but there are a few nations that require this. For example, in order to receive my Venezuelan visa, I was asked to show proof of financial stability (bank records), proof of employment (letter from my employer), and even a mortgage statement!
I reckon the reason behind this, is that they want to make sure you aren’t at risk of traveling to their country and just plopping down and staying–this is certainly less of a risk if they know you have a job, money, residence, etc. back home. But it’s all pretty ironic, as if someone living in the US would really choose to relocate somewhere like Venezuela. No offense to my Venezolanos, but we all know the crisis Venezuela is facing; their people are trying to get out; no one’s trying to get in!)
Working with a Visa Service
There are countless visa services out there, a simple Google search will provide you with dozens. Find the one you like, and then visit their website for instructions. Specifics vary country to country, but usually the steps include downloading and completing the country’s visa application (which can be done right from the visa service’s website), and sending it to the visa service’s office, along with your passport, hotel and air booking confirmations, and passport photos. Triple, even quadruple check, that you’ve filled out the applications correctly, have signed them (I forgot this once), and have included everything required in the instructions. I’ve wasted time and money because I’ve missed items.
You should always send your passport and documents via USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc., as a trackable package. You’ll want to know where you passport is at all times! Of course, that’s why you hire a visa service–their job isn’t only to get your visa for you, but to look after your passport, and know where it is at all times. Some services offer great tracking services where you can logon to your account and see exactly how your visa is coming along, from “passport received at office,” to “passport dropped off at embassy,” to “office verifying the visa,” etc.
How Will I Know if I Need a Visa?
Google it! But caution: verify visa requirements using more than just one source. Sometimes visa requirements change overnight, without notice. Check different websites to guarantee you’re getting the latest info. I like this Wikipedia page, which has all nations and their requirements, but I can’t vouch for how often it’s updated. I also check the US State Department’s specific country page, which includes visa requirements along with travel warnings and alerts for every nation.
What Happens if I Don’t Have a Visa?
For countries that don’t offer a visa on arrival, you won’t even be able to board the plane! Airlines check visas multiple times before boarding, and you’ll be turned away. And what a bummer that would be! You’ve paid for your flight and hotel and taken time off of work, only for your vacation to end at the airport. That would suck!
I once heard of a lady pulling out her credit card when the gate agent asked to her “visa.” Oh no! She was clueless. Another time, I was at the Brasilian Consulate in Los Angeles, when I witnessed some poor schmuck approach the window for a visa…only problem was he was supposed to be traveling the very next day, and Brasilian visas take minimum five business days to process. You can’t even pay for an expedited visa. I felt so bad for this dude. Don’t be that guy! Do your research and apply for your visa(s) early!
Can I Get Into Every Country?
Americans are lucky: we have access to almost every country in the world. Our passport is “powerful,” meaning, it can get us access to almost everywhere, with a few exceptions. Right now Iran isn’t accepting Americans. Libya recently stopped allowing tourists as well. The only way to get in is with a business visa. I may or may not have entered this way. But generally, Americans are fortunate to be able to go almost everywhere.
Things aren’t equal for everyone though. Germany and Singapore actually boast the world’s most powerful passports, with access to 159 countries, visa free. The U.S. is close, at 157. Traveling on the world’s least powerful passport is tough: Afghanistan’s will only get you into 24 nations without a visa. You can see how all every country’s passport ranks HERE.
Don’t Forget Your Yellow Card!
A handful of countries require you bring your “yellow card,” that is, your proof of immunization. Most of them just want to see that you’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever. Check to see if the country you’re going to requires a yellow card. It’s not a bad idea to bring yours with you at all times anyway; just keep it with your passport.
Don’t Be a Fool…Go to School!
In other words, do your research. Do it early, and never leave it til the last minute. And never, ever assume. Even I’ve made this mistake, a couple times; only to arrive at the airline counter looking like a deer in headlights when I’m asked for my visa!
Wikipedia’s list of countries and their visa requirements for Americans
How does your passport rank? A list of country’s passports and how they rank
US State Department country specific visa info
Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (recommended before you leave the country, free to register!)