A procedure that is notorious for red tape, paperwork requirements and obtuse rules, applying for a visa may be the most confusing travel experience you encounter as you roam the world. To make things even more complicated, visas are changing fast, with e-visas coming online at a blistering pace. To help you navigate the process, we've gathered the most important information on how to get a visa.
What Is a Visa, and How Do I Know if I Need One?
A visa is a record of authorization for an individual to visit and/or stay in a country that is required of travelers by many nations worldwide. Visa requirements are triggered by all sorts of issues, and the best way to determine whether you need a visa for the countries you are visiting is to check for yourself. A common error is to assume that you won't need a visa for countries that welcome tons of tourists, but this is not always the case; for example, Australia requires a visa, while many countries that are considered less tourist-friendly do not.
Additionally, the length of your stay can affect visa requirements; U.S. citizens, for example, do not need a visa to visit most European countries unless they plan to stay longer than 90 days.
The location of a country doesn't automatically mean a visa is required; Kazakhstan, for example, is surrounded by countries that require visas for all US. travelers, but does not require a visa for U.S. citizens for stays under 15 days.
Note that the type of travel you are doing is important; Kazakhstan does require visas for stays under 15 days if you are engaging in employment or missionary activities.
Visa requirements sometimes change temporarily. One current example is Brazil's decision to waive visa requirements for travelers from the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan this summer during the Olympic Games; the normal visa requirements go back into effect on September 19, 2016.
Visas are like passports, and each member of your traveling party -- including kids -- needs his or her own.
Where to Start: Your Government's Website
To determine whether you need a visa, visit your home country's government website -- specifically the department that oversees foreign travel. In the U.S., this is the State Department. Canadians should click here, while Brits should check out this section of Gov.uk. Australia's government gives country-specific info at Smartraveller.gov.au, while New Zealand offers SafeTravel.govt.nz.
These websites generally offer a range of information about travel to every country around the world, including safety warnings, embassy information and entry requirements. This will give you a solid start on your quest for a visa -- including whether or not you will need one at all.
Next: Visit the Embassy or Consulate Website
If it looks like you'll need a visa, you'll then want to visit the website of the embassy or consulate of the country you're visiting (which you can typically find on the government websites listed above). There you will find information about the application process, appointment scheduling information, types of visas to consider and more.
Note that some offices are much busier and/or better staffed than others, so you might want to try a few different offices if turn-around times are long or requirements are difficult. That said, some offices also have very strict geographical requirements to process applications; that is, you must live within their jurisdiction in order for them to process your visa application. Be vigilant when reviewing submission information to watch out for these potential snags, which can cause unexpected and sometimes significant delays.
Make Sure Your Other Documents Are in Order
As we explained in 10 Things You Don't Know About Passports, many countries require that your passport be valid 90 days to six months beyond the date of your stay, and the same typically applies to visas.
Some visa applications may ask for flight numbers, lodging addresses and other specific itinerary info, so you'll want to make plans early for trips requiring a visa.
Start Well Ahead of Time
Official waiting periods for visas can run from two weeks to a couple of months -- but the actual time you need might be longer. For example, some embassies require that you (or a visa application/expediting company) make an appointment to appear in person, which can add considerably to your turn-around time. When I applied for a Brazilian visa last year, wait times for appointments were around three to four weeks, after which the clock for actually getting the visa would start.
Plan to Be Without Your Passport
In almost all cases your visa application requires that you send in your passport, so you will want to make sure that you won't need it during the processing period.
A Note About Work Visas
If you are going to be working during your visit, you may need a work visa. For many people, the term "work visa" seems to apply only when you are planning to go work for a company in the foreign country, get paid in the local currency and perhaps even live there for an extended time.
Some countries, however, including Brazil and Russia, require that you apply for a specific type of work visa even if you are simply getting paid by your company back home. That is, if you are doing work of any kind, including going to a conference or meeting with a client, you will need a visa that allows it. If you're traveling for any kind of business, be sure to check the requirements ahead of time.
Other Types of Visas
In addition to tourist and work visas, there are any number of other types of visas, designed for diplomats, journalists, performing artists, students, physicians, religious workers and more. With such a range of choices you will want to be very clear about which type of visa you need to accomplish the purpose of your trip. Sometimes you can fudge it -- getting away with a bit of work on a tourist visa, for example -- but a safer approach is to get the right visa.
Visa and Visit Durations
Visas can be valid for anywhere from a few days to several years; be sure that you'll be covered for the entire length of your trip. Also, visas vary with respect to the number of entries and departures they allow; typically visas are single-entry, double-entry or multiple-entry depending on the country and type of visa.
Many countries are phasing out paper or stamped visas at a rapid pace, replacing them with electronic visa (sometimes called e-visa) systems. Australia is the most prominent of these, with nearly all visas being issued electronically at present.
The U.S. is also moving toward e-visas; for example, as of November 2016 Chinese nationals will be required to update their visa every two years using the new Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS).
Canada also has new requirements for visa-exempt foreign nationals to have an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA); exceptions include US citizens and travelers with a valid Canadian visa.
Other countries using e-visa systems include New Zealand, Turkey, Sri Lanka, India, Armenia and Cambodia.
A less common visa variant is the on-arrival visa, which typically is issued only in unusual circumstances such as a diverted flight. Some countries do issue visas on arrival for citizens of select foreign nations. For example, Turkey will issue an e-visa on arrival, usually at a premium.
Many countries will allow longer-term visitors to extend their visas from within the country; this is one you will want to investigate yourself if the situation arises. Countries such as Thailand are taking measures to discourage "visa runs," a tactic where a visa holder will leave the country briefly in order to reset the clock on his or her visa expiration.
What Do Visas Cost?
Visas are not free, and you will typically pay anywhere from $30 to $200 for a completed visa, not including postage, copying, notarization or other ancillary fees. Leave things to the last minute, and you'll have to pay an expediting fee as well.
Visa Services and Agencies
Using a passport or visa expediting agency can help ease the way through an often confusing process. And if you're off to a late start on your application, these services are almost essential, as they can often get even high-demand, difficult-to-obtain visas on very short notice, sometimes in a day or two. Short of camping out on an embassy floor, this would be nearly impossible for an individual to pull off.
Additionally, professional passport and visa agencies typically have the latest information on what you need for your application, can talk you through your forms, will advise you on which type of visa to choose and can identify potential application errors or omissions before submitting. Having used one a few years ago, I found that it was well worth the extra cost. You can read more about these services in Passport and Visa Expeditors.
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