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A Short Guide to Visas

A passport, covered in visa stamps
Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock

Within the United States, you don’t need a passport to travel, let alone a visa. That’s not the case in most of the world so let’s look at the basics of visas so you’re well versed in what you may need for your international travels.

First things first; understand that visas are serious business. I had a friend get deported from India because she arrived without a visa! Don’t make her mistake.

So what is a visa? Visas are special documents that grant non-citizens permission to enter, stay in, and leave a country. There are different kinds of visas for various purposes.

  • Tourist visas allow people to visit for pleasure.
  • Immigration visas allow people to work and reside in the country.
  • Student visas allow people to reside for education.
  • Business visas allow people to work in a country.

Each category has many different subcategories and the specifics of which visa you need and what the requirements are can get very complicated. In this article, we’re going to focus on the most common visa situations you’ll encounter as a tourist.

Traditional Visas

Thai visa
My visa for Thailand. I had to send my passport off to the embassy to get it.

A traditional visa is, at least for Western tourists, the least common visa situation you’ll have to deal with but it’s simplest to address it first so you can understand how the other situations compare to it.

Let’s say I wanted to travel to Russia on my Irish passport. Ireland and Russia don’t have great diplomatic relations, so I need a traditional visa. This means I have to:

  • Get an Official Tourist Invitation and Travel Voucher by applying either directly to the Russian Government or using a dedicated tour operator.
  • Complete an online visa application form.
  • Take out a health insurance policy.
  • Send all of that along with my passport, an additional passport photo, proof of where I’m staying for the duration of my stay, and a fee to the Russian Embassy in Dublin.
  • Wait up to four weeks for the Russian government to consider my visa application and either approve or deny it.

And this is all fairly standard for getting a visa. Some countries and types of visa require an in-person interview at an embassy or consulate. You might also be required to provide proof of income or show that you have enough cash to support yourself for the duration of your stay. Free movement is not a luxury enjoyed by much of the world.

Visas On Arrival

Indonesian VOA
My VOA for Indonesia. This I got on arrival at the airport.

Issuing visas in advance is pretty time consuming for the country doing it. The USA has to deal with millions of visa applications a year. Some countries, then, offer visas on arrival (VOA) to residents of countries they’re relatively friendly with. A VOA is still a visa (we’ll look at non-visa stuff in a few moments), but you don’t need one in advance of your travel.

When I traveled to Indonesia early this year, I got a VOA. All this involved was going to a desk, paying a $35 fee, and then having a quick chat with an immigration officer about the purpose of my visit before he stamped my passport. In theory, you can be refused a VOA, but it doesn’t seem to happen much in practice—at least if you’re genuinely visiting for tourism.

eVisas

Like VOAs, eVisas are another way for countries to cut down on the time and cost of issuing visas to citizens of countries they have good diplomatic relationships with. Instead of applying at an embassy, you submit your application online before you travel. Again, this is an actual visa so the forms can be fairly involved and you’ll have to pay a fee. Some eVisas get issued instantly while others can take a few weeks. India is one of the major countries that issue eVisas to US (and Irish!) passport holders.

If your eVisa is approved, you’ll be issued some kind of confirmation document to print off. When you arrive at immigration, you present the confirmation, and they’ll (hopefully) stamp your passport granting you entry.

Visa Waivers

visa waivers
Visa waiver stamps for the USA and Moldova.

Visa waivers, unlike the options above, aren’t visas. They’re a waiver that lets you enter the country without one for a limited period. EU countries issue visa waivers to US passport holders and vice versa.

Visa waivers are issued in one of two ways: on arrival or online, in advance.

If you can get a visa waiver on arrival, then things are straightforward. When you arrive, you just join the appropriate immigration queue. The immigration agent will likely ask you a few questions about why you’re visiting then stamp your passport or provide you with an entry ticket confirming the time and date of your entry. If you get an entry ticket, don’t lose it as you need to present it when you leave. Losing it means an awkward conversation and possibly a trip to an immigration office to get a new one.

Increasingly, countries are using an Electronic System for Travel Authorization or ESTA to approve people for visa waivers. Like with eVisas, you fill in an online form and possibly pay a small fee. Assuming you’re eligible and not on any travel watchlists, you’ll be approved almost instantly. This is the system the US uses for European visitors. The EU is introducing one in 2021 that will apply to US visitors.

How to Find Out What Visa You Need

The simplest way to find out what kind of visa you need to visit a particular country is using the Passport Index, a website that ranks the power of passports based on how easy it is for someone with one to travel. The US passport does pretty well: US citizens can travel to 116 countries visa-free, can get a visa on arrival for 49, and need a traditional visa for 33.

passport index

Once you know what the visa situation is, you can plan accordingly. If you need a visa, an eVisa, or an ESTA, the country will have all the information on their embassy or consulates website. Google is your friend here.

Note, the Passport Index looks at tourist travel visas. If you plan to work, study, or stay for an extended period, you probably need a different visa. For example, if I want to stay longer than 90 days in the US, which is what I’m allowed visa-free, I need to apply for a 10-year non-immigrant tourist visa.

Essential Things to Note About Visas

Alright, now that you’ve got a pretty decent handle on the kind of visa situations you’re likely to encounter, here are some essential things to remember.

Visas and visa waivers don’t guarantee you entry. The immigration officers at the border have a lot of power to turn you away if they suspect you’re planning to overstay.

Some countries require you to apply for a transit visa or ESTA if you’re just passing through. Make sure to check the entry requirements for every country you’re visiting, even if you’re not staying.

If you overstay a visa or visa waiver, expect fines, deportation, and to be barred from returning to the country. Don’t do it.

Some countries require you to leave through the same port you entered or otherwise limit how you can leave, especially over land borders. If you’re planning to leave by a different port, check that you can first.

Different countries have different visa arrangements with other countries. If you’re traveling with friends who have a different passport than you, don’t assume you’ll all be able to enter under the same terms.

Applying for a visa can take time. Most embassies offer an expedited service but expect to pay. Don’t look visa information up the day before you leave; do it a few months before.

Visa policies can change quickly. Just because the situation was one thing last year doesn’t mean it’s the same right now. Always double check.


Visas are a lot of hassle but, if you have a Western passport, they’re manageable. If you’re from a country with a weaker passport, in terms of visa waiver agreements, like many African, Middle Eastern, and some Asian nations, be prepared to jump through more hoops.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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