The world isn’t a free place, and we can’t always go where we want to. An international travel visa is the permission we need to enter certain countries and stay for a while.
It can be a simple ink stamp, or a sophisticated multicolored label that covers an entire page.
Visas come in all shapes - round, square, triangular - and sizes, from barely visible to a full page. They help revive memories of trips gone by and are great collectors' items, especially now that many countries don't systematically stamp your passport each time you enter or leave the country.
Whatever its size or color, it can be difficult to get, depending on where you are going, or where you are from and why you’re heading there.
Who exactly needs a visa?
If you’re traveling regularly, at some point or another you will probably need one.
First, it depends where you’re from. If you’re from a Western country, you will probably need fewer visas than if you come from a developing country in Africa or Asia.
Second, it depends where you’re going. Some countries require almost everyone to have a visa. Others require only some nationalities to have a visa.
To find out whether you need one, you can either check your destination country’s website or use the widget I’ve put in the right-hand column by selecting your nationality and the country of your destination.
Do check for yourself; just because a friend or colleague didn’t need a visa doesn’t make it the same for you. Even the Internet can’t be relied upon unless you’re looking at a professional service or an official embassy.
Not every border is new or modern and crossing this one, between Senegal and The Gambia, I needed a visa and can guarantee my papers were very carefully scrutinized.
As an example, a British citizen traveling to Switzerland will not need a visa, but a Nigerian will. A Swiss citizen traveling to England won’t need a visa, but she will need one to visit Nigeria. And so on.
Some countries are nearly impossible to visit, or at least quite difficult. Here are some of the thorniest:
Getting a visa to a country at war tends to be limited to aid works and journalists.
There are some regional rules for visas. For example, citizens of the European Union do not need visas to visit other EU countries; a Smart Visa system is being introduced in Asia; several West African countries have joined in a common visa scheme. These rules change regularly, so don’t rely on guidebooks or word of mouth. A quick search online of visa + the name of the country should get you there, or check the visa widget (top right or at the bottom).
So before you do anything else, find out whether you need a visa.
Make a list of every country you plan to visit, and begin systematically checking. Remember, you’re not traveling in a vacuum and things like war and natural disasters can easily throw your visa plans out of whack (which is why it’s so important to keep checking!) Not to mention that visa requirements have been known to change...
There are visas and there are visas
There is no such thing as an international travel visa – each one is different. You can apply for a tourist visa, business visa, immigration visa, retirement... but unless you plan on actually living, working or studying in a country, you'll probably be applying for a tourist or visiting visa.
Please make sure you apply for the right visa because a small mistake in the type of visa you are requesting may result in the visa being denied. And be honest. If you lie, you could get deported, denied entry, blacklisted or worse.
If you’re connecting through another country – for example if you are flying from Europe to Central America and changing flights in Miami, you may need a transit visa. These are becoming less common but some countries still require them.
Longer haul flights mean fewer transit stops but there was a time - I can still remember it - when a long flight from North America to the Middle East would require several stops, at which we would be handed brightly colored transit passes we would have to flash to be allowed back on the plane.
Despite these improvements, you still have to apply to an embassy or consulate for your visa, either online (some are modernizing) or in person.
Visa travel procedures require... paperwork!
Visas can take time to obtain, from a single day to several months, so finding out about the processing times is one of the first things you should do once you’ve decided where you’re going. If your visa arrives too late, the embassy won’t care and you’ll be staying home.
Conversely there may be a limit as to how early you can apply.
The application process itself can be anything from quick and easy to horribly tedious and gutwrenching, usually the latter. You will need to submit a mass of documents, usually including some or all of the following:
Letting your passport out of your hands is scary and dangerous. Things get lost, and having to get a new passport is a lot more complicated than applying for a visa. Passports, by the way, have been around for more than 2000 years although the passport as a travel document only dates back to the 15th century. Visas on the other hand are much more recent and started being used regularly in the 19th century.
You may have to send originals, a harrowing thought, since that original may be your passport. But you may have no choice, which is why using a professional visa service that tracks your precious papers via courrier may be wise.
You may also be asked for strange documents, like letters from relatives with whom you’ll be staying or previous expired passports or (and this one is hugely discriminatory) medical clearances, including HIV or TB test results in some cases.
Make sure you provide everything you’re being asked for you may delay or invalidate your application process.
And now, it's time to apply
Depending on the country, you may apply either online or in person. You may need an interview, that might be more or less invasive – it might require fingerprinting or retina scans.
Make the appointment for your interview in good time, and while you’re there, find out how long it will take for you to get your visa and passport back.
Know how many entries are on offer. If you’re entering the country once, traveling on to another country, a single entry visa will be fine. But if you plan to use a country as a hub to visit the region, you’ll need a multiple entry visa so find out if they’re on offer.
It is quite common, during a long trip, to base yourself somewhere and travel away, always coming back. I did it in Bangkok when working as a foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia, and many travelers use London (above) as a base to see Europe. Having a hub or a base means you can have a bit more stability, get a regular place to live, and begin to know your neighborhood. If you're away on a long journey, having a 'home', however temporary, can help you cope with long absences from home.
And remember to ask about payment. Visas can be expensive and you may have to part with a large amount of money so find out if credit cards are accepted, or if you need to come prepared with a check or cash.
What about a visa on arrival?
This is becoming increasingly common. Just land at the airport, fill out a form, pay your visa fee (usually more expensive than getting your visa in your home country), and welcome to the country. Some countries use commercial companies – in effect outsourcing their visa services – to issue your visa and have it waiting for you at the airport. Sounds scary but it’s worked for me every time.
Make sure you double-check, because if you’re wrong, you could be put on the next plane home, at your own expense.
Some airlines may give you a landing card to fill in before you arrive: this is NOT a visa application. You may need to fill this in regardless of whether you need a visa or not.
Once you get your visa
Once you get your visa, check it for dates. How long is it valid for? Did you get it for as long as you wanted? Do you need to use it before a certain date? Avoid any surprises - never assume it is valid from the moment you get it or use it.
Check your name: is it spelled correctly?
If you’re happy everything is correct, make a copy of your visa (and keep the copy separate from the original so you don’t lose both – a waterproof pouch would be great). If you lose your passport, you want to prove you’re in the country legally.
If you find a mistake on your brand new visa, contact the embassy or the visa service immediately.
There is a possibility your visa application might be denied. If that is the case, find out why. It may be something simple, like a missing document, in which case you can provide and reapply. If it’s something more serious, make sure you keep the notification on file in case you ever decide to apply to that country for a visa again.
A few final thoughts about visas
There are a number situations you might face that aren’t covered above, and I can’t think of them all – but a few jump to mind.
Getting into the US if you're from a developing country is notoriously painful (especially after September 11), while some African and Asian countries can be daunting in terms of their bureaucracies. Specialized travel agencies can help you - if you can afford them, use them! You'll find these in plain sight on the street in your basic tourist 'hubs' or jump-off cities. It's hard to walk down a street in Bangkok without seeing signs touting visas for Burma or Vietnam.
Countries prefer giving you a visa where you live - but what if they don’t have an embassy in your country? Then you should get in touch with an embassy along the way and explain the situation to them – if your country has no embassy you may be allowed to get your visa en route. This is my preferred way, much better than mailing my passport to a country ahead - and it also means my visa won't run out by the time I get to my destination.
The visa process is usually straightforward. You apply, you pay, and you get. In some countries with a reputation for corruption, you might be asked to ‘smooth the way’ with a little extra – even in an official embassy. This did happen to me once in Africa and was billed as an ‘express service’. If I wanted my visa that week, I’d have to pay. When I asked how long it would take for the ‘normal’ service, I received a shoulder shrug and rolling eyes.
Consular staff can be unfriendly – perhaps it’s because of the high turnover of visa demanders they see every day so if things don’t go your way immediately, don’t lose your temper, don’t take offence, don’t try to be overly friendly, and don’t give out more information than you need to. Just smile, be honest, and provide straightforward answers.
If you want to get straight to the nuts and bolts, these are the steps to take once you’ve chosen your destination:
1. Find out if you need a visa. Not everyone does.
2. Make sure you have a valid passport (valid for at least 6 months).
3. Gather all the documents you need for your application.
4. Prepare the application.
5. Submit the application in person or online, as required.
It’s the easy version but now you know what’s involved. Reality check: that cheap last-minute trip being advertised all over the place may require a visa. First check below.