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A travel visa is a document issued by a country to allow entry to foreign travelers. A travel visa will have terms and conditions for travel may include the date of entry, length of stay, limits of where you may travel internally, and work restrictions.
These are different from a passport in that a passport is issued by the country to which you have citizenship. Having a passport does not guarantee you entry into any particular country.
Whether or not you need a visa depends on the country you are from and the country you wish to visit. As there are over 200 visa and passport issuing territories around the world, there are over 40,000 different combinations of countries you would need to consider. The only way to know for sure if you need a travel visa for your next trip is to search for which countries you plan to visit require citizens from your country to obtain a travel visa. This is an easy search engine for that information.
Travel visas differ from other types of visas such as residency, work, student visas, and even volunteer visas in some countries. Generally your travel visa will allow you to pursue only leisurely travels in a country—no work, studies, or long-term stays.
Roughly speaking, there are currently four types of visa regimes and travel visas you can get around the world.
1. Visa-Free Travel
As the name suggests, countries offering visa-free travel means you do not need to apply for a visa, nor do you need any prior approval to visit a country. For example, Canadians and Americans who visit each other’s country do not need a visa. Likewise, people within the European Schengen Zone do not need a visa to visit other countries. This courtesy is usually extended to neighboring countries or to more developed countries, where the is little fear of people staying past the term of their visa. In some cases, you may not receive a visible visa, but it still exists as an invisible “visa on arrival” situation—this is what many foreign nationals receive when arriving in the Schengen zone, and is explained in number three below.
2. Electronic or E-Visas
Next to visa-free travel, e-visas are the easiest option. Electronic visas do not require a visit to an embassy, nor do they require filing paperwork. An e-visa requires you to visit a website prior to your visit, fill out an online form, and pay a small fee with a credit card. Often, there is no physical document which is required. Your passport number is simply checked against a database when you arrive in the country. Australia requires Americans to get an e-visa before arrival, which is then good for a year. An e-visa is required for many Europeans who visit the U.S., and Europe will require it of Americans very soon.
A few countries will require you to print out a PDF or a web page at the end of the process and bring it with you to show proof of your visa at immigration control.
3. Travel Visa On Arrival
This means you get an actual visa once you arrive at a border crossing or airport, and this will appear in your passport like a normal visa. For a visa on arrival, you usually have to fill out forms and pay the visa fee at the airport. There will usually be a window before you pass through passport control where you pay for and receive the visa. The only difference between this and a visa-free entry is the fee and the paperwork.
4. Normal Travel Visa
This is what most people are referring to when they talk about having to get a travel visa for the place they plan to visit. This is a document which requires pre-approval by an embassy or consulate to gain entry to a country. It will require a fee and some amount of paperwork. Who will require a visa differs for every single country. Countries almost always require your physical passport during the application period, so they can affix your visa to it, so you will be without your passport for a period of time.
Most embassies and consulates that process visas are located in capital cities, or major non-capital cities like New York or Barcelona. If you live in a city with a consulate or an embassy, you can drop off your passport or paperwork in person. If not, you may have to process it through the mail.
Countries that require visa applications ahead of time at an embassy for most travelers include Russia and China, among others.
In many countries, there are also visa processing services available to take the hassle out of the process. They have an office in the capital where the embassies are located and they handle the paperwork and processing for you. They often have relationships with the travel visa processing staff at embassies because they see them so often. They will charge a fee for their services, in addition to whatever fee the embassy charges.
Visas usually have a clearly marked date for which it is valid. Make sure that your travel plans correspond to the correct dates. I’ve encountered many travelers who find that their flight leaves the day after their visa expires and they can get into serious trouble. Others track the date closely so they can do a visa run in their country of choice, thus allowing them to stay longer.
Most airlines check to see if you have a visa before you board the plane. If you arrive at a destination without a visa, the airline will be responsible for flying you back, and they may charge you a large fee.
A visa usually, but not always, takes up a full page in your passport. If you are running low on pages, you might need to get a new passport before you seek more visas. This may be the case even if you have years left before your passport expires since some countries require that you have one full, empty page left in your passport before entering.
Read Next: What is a Visa Run?