What is a Visa?

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A visa is a document issued by a country to allow entry to foreign travelers. A 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.

It is 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 will depend on the country you are from and the country you wish to travel to. 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 is to search for which countries are required to get a visa for the country you wish to visit.

Roughly speaking, there are currently four types of visa regimes and visas you can get around the world.

1) Visa-Free Travel

As the name suggests, this means you do not need to apply for a visa or 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.

2) Electronic or E-Visas

Next, to visa-free travel, this is the easiest option. It does not require a visit to an embassy, nor does it 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 which is then good for a year. Americans also require an e-visa for many Europeans who visit the US, and Europe will require it of Americans very soon.

A few countries will require you to print out a pdf file or a web page at the end of the process and bring it with you to show it at immigration control.

3) Visa On Arrival

This means you get a visa which 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 can get the visa. The only difference between this and a visa-free entry is the fee and the paperwork.

4) Normal Visa

This is what most people are referring to when they talk about having to get a visa. 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 will differ for every single country. They will almost always require your physical passport to put the visa in it, so you will be without your passport for a period of time.

Most embassies and consulates which process visas are going to be 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.

In many countries, there are visa processing services. They have an office in the capital where the embassies are located and they will handle the paperwork and processing for you. They will often have relationships with the 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 will have a 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.

Most airlines will 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 will usually, but not always, take up a full page in your passport. If you are running low on pages, you might want 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.