Getting a Travel Visa
Bureaucracy is hands down the most fun part about travel, amirite? Ok, most definitely not, but it is arguably one of the most important parts. You can’t enjoy sunsets or mountains or pad thai if they won’t even let you on the plane.
The Henley Passport Index ranks the strength of a passport based on how many countries the passport holder is allowed to enter visa free (also includes visas on arrival). Leading the way in 2020 with access to a whopping 191 countries visa free is Japan.
No matter where your passport is from you need a visa to get into at least 35 countries (if you’re Japanese- you can do the math on the others). But don’t let visas deter you from visiting some spectacular places – you’d be missing out on a whole lot. It might take a little extra planning and money but I am going to walk you through the process of getting a visa and show you that it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Step 1: Determine whether or not you even need one
On each country on my site you can find information on entry requirements. For US passport holders you can visit HERE for the most up to date information. Everyone else can check their government websites.
Do you need a visa to enter? If Yes, continue to Step 2. If no, skip to step 6.
Step 2: How long does it take?
Make sure you’re going to have enough time to get everything done before your trip. With some countries you can mail it in, others you need to apply in person. If you need to apply in person, is there a consulate nearby or will you have to travel? Do you also have to pick it up in person or will they mail it back to you?
Do you have enough time to go through the process? If Yes, continue to Step 3. If No, choose a different destination and start over at Step 1.
Step 3: Commit
This is the hardest part for me. Deciding to do it. The actual doing it takes some work but getting over that mental block to just DO it is the hardest. You’ve got this. It’ll be worth it.
Step 4: The Nitty Gritty
Alright, this is the bulk of your work. Do you need an appointment at the consulate? Those usually need to be scheduled very far in advance. Sometimes it can be done online, other times you need to call. Consulates keep very short hours and usually take off both their own national holidays as well as yours. For example, the Argentine consulate in the United States would take off both Argentine and US holidays.
Where is the nearest consulate? Luckily, my hometown is near a large city (Chicago) and it isn’t too much hassle to drive in for an appointment. Make it on a Friday and I’ve got myself a fun little long weekend. For my Italian visa I needed to apply in person but it was mailed back to me. Only one trip needed. For China I needed to apply in person and pick up in person whenever they told me it was ready (10ish business days later). Inconvenient but ultimately not a huge deal. Russia, however, only has five consulates in the US and none of them are closer than a 2+ hour plane ride away. There was no way I was going to pay to travel and stay a week. It is usually possible to pay an agency to take care of this for you by mailing in, even when the website says they must be in person.
If you don’t live close to the consulate this is probably your best bet. Make sure to do research beforehand, read reviews and ensure they are a reputable company. It will cost you more money, but less overall than travel would. I used Passport Visa Express and had a very positive experience with them. They work with 150 countries and made everything really easy for me.
Paperwork: There is usually a form to fill out and in some cases you will be asked to prove you have a flight out of the country. If you have onward travel figured out, great! If you are more flexible and aren’t exactly sure which city you’ll fly out of or when you might have to get creative.
There are sites that you can pay to issue a fake ticket or you can buy a ticket on sites like Expedia that allow free cancellation within 24 hours. While I’m not a huge fan of planning out my whole trip and also hate feeling constrained to a schedule I do try to avoid doing this. I try my best to approximate and buy a ticket that I intend to use. You can usually purchase options that make altering the flight later on cheap and easy. Do what works best for your travel style and comfort level. HERE is a more in depth look on providing proof of onward travel.
Sometimes you need passport photos, other times not. Make sure you look up your country’s requirements for this. In the US the Walgreens employees usually know and will help you out.
If you’re given the option to mail one or both ways you will be required to provide the postage. If you don’t necessarily understand what they’re asking for you can print out the instructions page and show it to the employee at the mail shop who should know.
Step 5: Put it all together
The hardest part is over! All you have to do is send it in the mail, submit online or show up for your appointment. More is better when it comes to photocopies of anything and everything. It is nerve wracking walking away without your passport but you’ll get it back better than it was before!
Step 6: Enjoy your trip!
You did it! Pack your bags and don’t forget your passport. Enjoy your trip. You’ve earned it.
Things to keep in mind
- Time limits: Whether or not you need a visa to enter, unless you’re a citizen or a resident, there’s always a time limit on your stay. In some countries (where you don’t need a visa to enter) you just need to border bounce. Cross the border into a neighboring country for an afternoon and make your way back and your visa resets. Other times it’s not so simple. Within the Schengen area of Europe, for instance, non Schengen or EU citizens are alloted 90 days within a rolling 180 day period. I have entire Excel spreadsheets documenting my entry and exit dates to keep track. Sometimes they check upon exit, other times they don’t care but it’s not worth the risk of overstaying. In other countries you can overstay and simply pay a fine upon exit and it won’t cause any issues or impact future return, just make sure you’ve got the money to pay. Make sure you are aware how long your passport is allowed to stay in each country because each host country has different rules and those rules are different for each country that visits.
- Number of entries: Many visas are single entry visas unless you specifically apply for multiple entry. Your visa might last 30 or 60 days but if you leave before your time expires it still becomes null and void. To re-enter you’d need a totally new one.
- Mode of transport: In Belarus I didn’t need a visa if I flew in and out but would’ve if I had taken a bus. In Laos I was allowed a visa on arrival in the airport but would’ve needed to get a visa beforehand if I came over land. Check the rules carefully.
- Layovers: Transit visas are a thing. Make sure to know whether or not you need a visa for a country you’re just passing through. I believe some passports must do this for layovers in the States. On the other end, China offers 72 hours visa free where you can leave the airport and hang out for 3 days without needing to get a Chinese visa. Make sure to get in the right line at Immigration, as this is a separate section. I highly recommend taking a trip to China because you could spend months traveling around there is so much to do and see, however, it’s a great option to take advantage of in the moment if you’ve got the time.
- Visa types: Some of the most common visas are tourist visas, transit visas, work visas and student visas but that is by no means the exhaustive list. Each visa has different requirements and you will want to make sure you’re getting the appropriate visa for your visit.
A Final Note
This post should be used as a reference only. You’ll need to check carefully based on your country of citizenship and for each individually country you travel to. Use extra caution as Covid-19 has caused many rule changes that continue to be updated on the fly. Check and double check you have everything required from the consulate website and make sure to have photocopies of it all.
It’s intimidating- but easier than it sounds and very worth it in the end. Good luck and safe travels!