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The Complete Guide to Travel Visas

young woman looking at a map
Allianz - young woman looking at a map

In 2015, those with a valid U.S. passport could travel to 172 countries and territories.
That’s a whole lot of options and potential itineraries. In fact, America ranked third behind only Finland and Sweden in advance visa-free travel freedom.1

This is even more impressive when you consider this: the United States asks foreign visitors, with some exceptions, to obtain visas before crossing its own borders. And while some countries ask Americans to obtain visas solely because we ask their citizens to do the same – tit for tat, if you will – this lack of reciprocity hasn’t dramatically impacted the number of nations you can set foot in with just a backpack and your passport book.

But what about all those other countries – China, Russia, Australia, Pakistan and Brazil? And how do you go about applying for travel visas to these and other nations? 2

Passports vs. Travel Visas

It’s hard to talk or write about visas without mentioning passports. They go hand in hand, really. You need a valid passport to accompany a travel visa. In fact, your passport will need to be up to snuff in the eyes of a foreign government to obtain a visa for entrance into that nation. Requirements may include having a minimum number of blank pages, being valid for a minimum window of time before it requires renewal – six months, for example – and even having been obtained a minimum number of months before a visa is approved for travel.

Here is one way to look at passports vs. travel visas. Obtaining a passport takes a lot of upfront legwork, but once you’ve obtained your legal documents from the U.S. government, it’s a one-size fits all pass to a number of countries ripe for exploring.

Travel visas can be a bit easier upfront. That’s because you’ll already have much of the info, pictures and documentation needed when you applied for your passport. (Of course, if that was 10 years ago, maybe not.) But the application processes for travel visas, which physically live inside your passport in the form of stickers or stamps, is not a cookie cutter that can be reused from country to country.3U.S. citizens need to apply for each visa individually, and the process for each can range widely.

How to Obtain Foreign Travel Visas

Because getting travel visas is a specialized process from country to country, we cannot provide one set of steps that’s applicable for every destination and situation. That said, we can provide you a sound plan in broad strokes, while also sharing some helpful resources to assist you in gaining legal admittance to your destination country. Here are some general steps and tips to follow.

  1. Determine everything you’ll need to travel to your destination. The U.S. State Department is the best place to start. Here you can find whether you need a visa and learn any other travel guidelines or restrictions, from necessary immunizations to the length of stay a visa may grant you. (These can run the gamut from 14 days in Bahrain to eight months in the Bahamas.)4
  2. Get your passport details squared away. If renewal is approaching, now is a good time to make it happen. (If you need to apply for a U.S. passport for the first time or simply need to review it, we have a helpful and in-depth guide available.) For travel to China, for example, you’ll need at least one blank page and a six-month window of validity remaining.
  3. Call or visit the website of your destination’s embassy or consulate. Or stop by the actual offices. Here you’ll want to determine the category of visa you’ll need. You may find dozens of different options. For example, to visit China, options include:
    a. Foreigners who intend to go to China for exchanges, visits, study tours and other non-business activities.
    b. Foreigners who intend to go to China as a tourist.
    c. Foreigners who intend to go to China for commercial and trade activities.
    There are a host of other, more specialized scenarios as well. Be sure to read through them all.5
  4. Complete the application. In most cases, you should be able to print this off from the embassy’s website. You may need to photocopy and include other documents, such as the identification page of your passport.
  5. Take a picture. It’s best to print extra 2” X 2” passport photos and reuse them for visa applications if they’re recent and meet the visa specs.
  6. Pay the fee. These fees aren’t cheap. China charges $140 for a single U.S. citizen’s travel visa with a standard four-day turnaround. For an extra $20, applicants can expedite turnaround to two or three days. Payment options include credit card, check or money order; cash is not accepted. (5)
  7. Deliver the application. This may be the trickiest part. In many cases, you’ll be asked to mail your passport, in which case you’ll want to make sure you won’t need the critical travel document. You’ll want to track the shipment to ensure its safety. For China, you or your assigned agent needs to physically walk the application package into the embassy or consulate – and pick it up. (You can find locations here.) Other times, it’s as easy as including a self-addressed stamped envelope, or SASE for, the visa to be mailed to you when it’s been approved.
  8. Share your travel details. You may be asked to share your itinerary “invitation” to foreign countries when applying for visas. This can be as simple as listing the reason for your visit, along with where you’re staying and perhaps even including proof of your return airfare.

A Word About Visas on Arrival

Some nations require visas – but limit the amount of upfront legwork. These are referred to as “visas on arrival,” because you apply as you enter the country. Nations employing this method include Jordan, Paraguay and Uganda. These visas are often provided at no cost and are frequently valid for 30 days, but check the specific details of the countries on your itinerary. Also, be sure to bring extra photos if you’re traveling to one of these nations.

Applying for travel visas can be expensive and time-consuming, especially if your trip involves multiple nations and multiple visas. That’s all the more reason you should follow the instructions closely and complete the application truthfully. But the turnaround time for getting your visas is often swift. And there is some peace of mind in landing in a new country and knowing that you already have all of the needed documentation.

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Jan 19, 2017