How to Get Visas for International Travel
Why do you need a visa to travel? The answer is simple: not every citizen of every country can enter other countries without having properly arranged for a visa in advance (or paying for one on arrival).
Visas are very important when arriving in a new country. We advise you do your research before you leave to make sure you get to enjoy your final destination.
Getting a visa before you arrive in your destination country can be easy, or it can require some research. If it’s your first time looking into visas for your next trip, or if you need a quick refresher on some things to keep in mind, check out our top tips.
What’s a travel visa?
Last year my friend told me he was taking a trip to Brazil, and asked if I had been.
“Not yet,” I said, “but I want to go to Brazil! Did you get your visa yet?”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “You need a visa to enter Brazil,” I said. “How much time do you have before your flight?” It turned out that he had just enough time to arrange for a visa so that he could enter Brazil and not get turned away.
As Americans, we can go to many places visa-free. For example, Americans can go to mostly all of Europe, Central America and half of South America without visas. As soon as you want to book a trip to Brazil, Russia, India, Bolivia or China, this all changes.
For citizens of countries aside from the US, thinking about getting a visa for their next international trip is as immediate as also knowing they’ll need a passport. For people in countries where many destinations are visa-free, it can be difficult to know exactly if and how they’ll need to get a visa for entry.
How to get a visa for travel
How do you get a visa? Do they take a long time to get? We suggest leaving yourself enough time to arrange for some international visas, as you’ll be without your passport if the country requires a mailing for the application.
Remember that some visas take up an entire page of your passport. If you’re short on pages or expecting a long trip, be mindful of how many pages remain. If you have enough time beforehand, you can apply for a new passport that will be ready in time for your trip.
Where to keep copies of visas
Printing a copy of the visa and also having some extra physical passport photos are very handy if your passport should get stolen or misplaced. We always upload copies of our passports, visas and other items that are sometimes required for visa applications like yellow fever vaccination cards, to Google Drive or Dropbox.
Always save a photo of your passport and all visas in your phone and also in a cloud drive like Google or Dropbox so that you can retrieve proof of legal entry in an emergency scenario.
How long do travel visas last?
Lastly, be aware of how long your visa permits you to remain legally in the country. Some visas can be for 30 days, and some might be for a year or more. Check the rules to determine if you need to leave and re-enter every 30 days or etc., as this is common.
For applying, you may need to provide documentation of where you’re staying, which could be a hotel, hostel, friend or family member’s home. It is responsible to have the address ready to go, when you’re filling paperwork. Some visas might also require a letter of invitation from a host, which can be a personal contact or an organization.
Types of visas
In 2009, I started my solo international travel in Asia, where most countries except South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand required visas.
There are a few different types of visas, and it’s important to check your home country’s website or do a bit of research as to what is required in an application process and how much it will cost.
How to get visas in advance
My visa experiences started with applying for a visa to Vietnam in 2010. I went to the Vietnamese Consulate of Shanghai, where I waited in a short line, had a very short interview, and paid about USD 60. After ten days or so, I went back to the consulate to pick up my passport, which had a fresh Vietnamese visa inside.
You may also have to wait in long lines to get visas. In Hong Kong, if you want to get a travel visa for Mainland China, you have to go to the China visa office and take a number, wait, speak with a person at a booth who will ask you about your motives to travel to China, and wait again. Then, you have to come back in another three or four days and take a number, wait, and get your passport back.
When I went to Bolivia with a friend, we both did our research and mailed our passports to the Bolivian Embassy in Washington, D.C., along with a certified check for USD 160, with our printed applications and necessary copies of photos, drivers licenses, proof of yellow fever vaccinations* and any other items on the long checklist for visas for American citizens. They don’t make this so easy!
After a few weeks, my passport was returned to me by certified mail with a shiny Bolivian visa inside.
How to get a visa upon arrival
For Cambodia, it was a visa on arrival, so after showing up in the Phnom Penh Airport, we got in line with every other non-resident and paid USD 25 in cash to get a Cambodian visa put into our passports right on the spot. It was the same type of process in Zambia, and in Indonesia and in Laos.
How to get an E-visa
The electronic visa is a new type of process that I’ve used for getting entry into the South Asian countries of India and Sri Lanka. You will use the country’s tourism website to apply for an electronic visa, and pay by credit card on their website. When you’ve finished the online application, print the finished application along with any other proof of confirmation numbers or email receipts and payment receipts. When you exit your flight and arrive in passport control, the passport officer will read your paperwork and issue the visa at that time.
Do all countries require visas?
Not all countries require that you have a visa to enter, but it depends on which type of passport you hold.
If you don’t need a visa for where you’re going, you’re in luck! You can simply show up. This is what I really appreciate about going to Central America, Colombia, Hong Kong, Peru, Ecuador, Israel, most of Europe (Americans need visas for Russia) and South Africa.
My favorite website for figuring out if I need a visa for where I want to go, or, selecting a destination where I can go visa-free is here. This is the type of map that’ll save you if you thought you didn’t need to even think about visas for where you’re going.
Do any visas require proof of yellow fever vaccines?
Yes. Some visas require proof that you got a yellow fever vaccine. The best example is the visa application for Americans for travel to Bolivia.
Yellow fever vaccinations are required for some countries, and if you plan to travel extensively in Amazonian South America or Africa, it is recommended to get the vaccine from a trusted healthcare provider. The vaccine is good for ten years. It’s important to keep a copy of your yellow vaccination proof card for using in visa applications.
I’ve also applied for some visas that “strongly recommend” having the yellow fever vaccine, but do not necessarily require it for the application. In Zambia, I received a visa on arrival at the airport, and even though I had gone to some lengths to dig up an electronic copy of my vaccination card, it was not required in the end.
For any information discussed above, we strongly suggest that you visit government websites or your destination country’s website in order to receive the most up-to-date data on entry requirements. While we have mentioned some personal stories in this article, requirements change all the time!