“Don’t take life too seriously…no one comes out alive!” – Elbert Hubbard
A visa for travel is a stamp or sticker that goes inside your passport; they allow you access into a country for a certain number of days. No, they have nothing to do with the credit card of the same name.
Some countries do not require a travel visa at all, they’ll give you an exemption when you turn up and stamp you in. Other countries such as China and Vietnam require that you have a visa already issued before you arrive. Deadbeats without proper visas are the responsibility of the airline (they have to fly you back to your origin), so you’ll probably be checked for a visa when you check in for your flight.
They can deny boarding if they think you pose a risk of costing them money! Do your visa research beforehand.
Do You Need a Visa for Travel?
Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dried answer to this question. Requirements vary between nationalities and destinations. Diplomatic relationships fluctuate and rich old men play golf together. To make matters worse, visa requirements can change for countries every year or so. Go to the source for accurate information — be vary of out-of-date articles.
The best way to find out is to go to each destination’s embassy website to see the current visa requirements for your country of citizenship. Different countries of origin may have different travel visa requirements, so consider their nationality before assuming you have the same. For instance, some nationalities receive a 30-day visa exemption when entering Thailand via flight, while others only get 15 days before they have to leave.
What Is a Visa on Arrival?
Visa on arrival is different than a visa exemption. The two are often confused. Visa on arrival usually costs money, to be paid when you arrive; these can often be extended if you want to stay longer. Visa exemptions are usually free and cannot be extended.
Many friendly countries offer a “visa on arrival.” This means that you may obtain the necessary visa once you arrive at their airport or border crossing. The length of these visas are typically 30 days, but they can be as short as two weeks or as long as one year! Many times you will be asked to provide at least one passport-sized photo of yourself; carry extra photos in your money pouch just in case.
Sometimes you should obtain your tourist visa for travel to the first destination in your home country before arrival at your destination. This will help you avoid long lines in the airports, and may grant you a longer stay. Tourist visas can often be extended. If you received a visa exemption when you arrived, you won’t be able to extend — you’ll have to cross a border on a “visa run.”
Mailing a Passport
To get visas for travel you typically have to mail your passport — a frightening concept — along with the completed forms to the country’s embassy in your home country. They will stamp your passport, collect a fee, and mail it back to you. If you choose this option, pay the extra for certified mail with tracking options.
Be aware that mailing a passport, even with maximum fancy postage, is still a dangerous endeavor. In 2015, yours truly had his passport stolen from the mail at the Thai embassy in Chicago. An expedited replacement cost me $200 plus a lot of new gray hair; I had to fix the disaster the day before a long trip. The USPS didn’t even refund the $30 in postage.
If driving somewhere to get your visa is feasible, do it! Don’t mail your passport if you can drive to an embassy. Use the trip as an excuse for a mini adventure before your big adventure!
Is An Onward Ticket Really Required?
This is one of the most often asked and difficult-to-answer travel questions, ranking up there with “how much money do I need?”
The short answer is that the onward ticket requirement (meaning you can’t arrive in a country with a one-way ticket) is up to the whim of the immigration official. Many countries ignore the policy altogether, but this can vary between airports, land-border crossings, and from officer to officer. Dress a little better when entering countries. If you look like a vagabond scumbag or that you plan to work in the country (don’t wear your PADI divemaster or “I’m an English teacher” shirt!), you may be asked for your exit flight information.
Some immigration officers will let you off the hook if you tell them that you plan to cross overland out of a country. For instance, you fly into Thailand which has the onward ticket requirement and plan to cross into Cambodia by bus.
Sometimes showing proof of funds (US dollars cash or a bank statement) may be enough to convince immigration that you have the means to move on when your visa expires.
Travelers have been known to fake onward tickets (not so hard to do) because they are rarely checked. If you dress sharply and show a piece of paper that even looks remotely like a ticket, you’ll probably be allowed to pass.
Some border officials are nicer than others. If you catch one on a bad day, they do have the option of making your life difficult — maybe even preventing entry.
Believe it or not, appearance does matter. Simply cleaning up before you cross a border can make your life easier. Remember, the agent’s twitchy stamp hand could change your entire trip. So smile, be polite even if you are cranky from a long journey, and follow directions closely — especially when filling out the forms.
Don’t draw attention to yourself. If the sign says “No Phones” (most immigration checkpoints have such policies), don’t be the one person snapping pics or updating Facebook.
You will often be asked routine questions at the border such as “What is your business here?” and “What is your occupation?”. These guys are hardly interested in your life story, or even an accurate answer. Just give honest-yet-short answers. Be confident! Save yourself some effort by not mentioning that you are “vagabonding” which will probably produce more difficult questions. Simply state that you are visiting on holiday as a tourist. If asked why you are staying so long, tell them how much you love the country. If you are unemployed, say that you are a student.
Other Travel Visa Considerations
- Getting a visa stamp in your passport for Israel may make entering Arab countries more difficult later. Jordan and Egypt are still allowing entry at this time, but other Arab countries will discriminate against you for having the Israeli stamp. Some travelers have them put the stamp on a piece of paper that is stapled inside of the passport, then tear it out later. Do not try to remove or mutilate the stamp if it goes into your passport, the entire passport could be declared invalid!
- Border officials are legendary wasters of passport pages. In fact, I am certain that they are sent to a special school that teaches them how to place a stamp just right to take up maximum room in your passport. Although having every page in your passport stamped is certainly a goal to aim for, it can also mean having to get a new passport before your next trip! Later, you’ll need two consecutive blank pages in the middle to add pages and extend its life.
- Bloggers and wannabe “influencers” take note: If you get lumped into the “journalist” category, you may require a special visa for fear that you will spread the unedited and non-government-approved truth about the interior of the country. Don’t mention being a writer or photographer when entering places of conflict.
- Using the wrong keywords could trigger more scrutiny. Be aware of sensitive political situations (e.g., when entering China, don’t mention going to Tibet).
Relax! Crossing a border, especially if it is your first trip, can be a nervous experience. There may be guards with machine guns and lots of guys in uniform — especially if you are coming to the United States. Unless you’ve got a bum full of drugs (don’t even think about it!), you have nothing to worry about. You’ll be stamped into a new country with a glorious sound and sent on your way.