All About Visas

I get asked about visas all the time. Most people don’t understand what visas are and why you need them to go to certain places. I have friends who have bought tickets to go to normal destinations such as Vietnam and had no idea they had to get a visa beforehand and were actually denied entry and deported. Visas can be a major pain in the ass to get for certain countries and can require a lot of resourcefulness, patience, information and money. I could write a book about the bureaucratic process of obtaining visas and I want to share some hints, advice and stories about getting visas.

First things first, before you travel you need to know if you need to get a visa for a certain country. It also depends what your citizenship is. For instance, Americans and Canadians can have different requirements for visas in certain countries with different costs, etc. Sometimes, Americans may not need a visa for a country but Canadians and British do. It all depends. Each major western nation has a government website that details entry requirements for their citizens for each country. The one for the US is the State Department website, These sites are great for basic information but are not always 100% accurate so it’s important to get the background from the site and then make further inquiries.

I usually call the embassy and ask the exact requirements for obtaining a visa because missing info or pieces that embassies require can lead to a denial of a visa which can be a painful and expensive process. Additionally, I will Google something about the visa for the country and see what the process is like to gauge how long it will take and whether it is a difficult process or straight forward. Thorn Tree forum is good for posting questions about visas etc. to get answers from people who are there or who have just been. I do this a lot or at least look at the message boards for similar questions.

Requirements for visas vary by country. Some countries are easy and simply give visas on arrival. This means you don’t have to do anything beforehand to get a visa, you simply arrive at the airport or border post and they stamp the visa in your passport. There is usually a fee between $20-$150. It’s best to research the fee beforehand so you are not surprised or irritated when you get to the destination and they start demanding money from you. Unfortunately, visas on arrival are few and far between these days.

If on arrival is not available you will have to apply for the visa either in person if you live near an embassy or consulate, you can do it by post or FEDEX or you can hire a visa service to do it for you on your behalf. I have done all three ways over the years. I have an advantage because I live in Manhattan where there are many consulates and UN missions that issue visas. Some do not and I have to go through the embassy in Washington or even through a third country in some cases.
You always have to fill out an application and often times it can be three or four of the same exact application. You always need passport pictures with a white background. It varies between 1 and up to 6 pictures depending on the country. Often times, you must submit your travel itinerary (flights) and a copy of a hotel reservation. This can be a pain if you like to book hotels and flights on the fly and don’t plan each day out.

The best thing to do in this scenario is to make a fake booking where you get a reservation at a hotel so you can print out the reservation with confirmation number, etc. and then cancel it afterwards. I do this all the time. Also, for flights, make friends with a travel agent or not, and have them reserve a fake itinerary to submit. Obviously you don’t have to pay for the flights or hotels but you need a paper with your name on it to submit and this is the best way to do it.

Additional requirements can get wacky. Sometimes I have to submit a bank statement to prove you have enough money to travel within the country. You don’t have to show that you’re rich, they essentially are just looking to see that you have access to a few thousand just in case. When I have to do this, I will print out a statement of a small account and black out the account number. Then make a copy of that wherein the account number is impossible to see. This has always sufficed for me.

You will also need to meet certain requirements for inoculations. Generally, you need to have a yellow card which shows your immunizations against diseases such as yellow fever which is the most common. They will ask to see this on arrival and sometimes when you apply for a visa.

I have also been asked for letters from my doctor stating that I am in good health and have no communicable diseases. Sometimes you need to even show an HIV test with a negative result. These are self explanatory and you have to get tested and/or call your doctor and ask for a letter of good health.

Other really annoying things to get are sponsorship letters from a contact inside the country. These can be the single most difficult and costly part of obtaining a visa. If you don’t know anyone in the country, then you have to either start asking people in that country to help you and sponsor your stay (I had to do this to get my Pakistan visa) or hire a sponsoring company.

These are almost always a hotel or travel agency in the country which will charge extortionate fees and agree to essentially accept responsibility for your stay. They then also expect and require you to book your travel with their agency or hotel. I am doing this right now in Sudan for example. It sucks but it is a necessary evil and you have to be resourceful and know how to get this stuff done if you want to get visas to difficult nations.

The strangest thing I have ever been asked to get was for Bolivia a few weeks ago. They told me I had to go to the local police precinct and get a letter of good behavior. Essentially, they ask you to show you haven’t been arrested or anything in the recent past. Seems retarded I agree but if they ask for it, you have to bury your head in the ground and get it.
For this letter, I went to the local precinct and said what I wanted. The cop looked at me strangely and then I started explaining to him why etc. He was not exactly a very worldly guy nor did he want anything to do with me. After me pestering him to do it he actually took a piece of paper that had the NYPD name on it and wrote Lee has never been arrested and signed a completely indistinguishable scribble. The worst part is that when I got to La Paz they didn’t even ask for it as I suspected would be the case but the embassy told me it was necessary. Bureaucracy at its worst!

All these annoying requirements are underscored by the fact that visas cost money, a lot of money. Sometimes they can be up to $250 or so if you need to get them expedited. I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on visas. The most annoying thing about it is that they all have different requirements for payment. Cash is generally not accepted and money orders are popular, which means you have to go to the post office or somewhere to get it. Just another pain you have to deal with.

So the bottom line is visas are a pain to get. Some countries require them as a reciprocal charge because your country requires their citizens to get one. This is often the case for Americans. You almost always have to jump through hoops to figure out what’s required and get all that stuff. Then you’re still at the mercy of the embassy but they are usually pretty good with some notable exceptions that I could also write a book on but I will spare you my rants on angry ambassadors and diplomats. Assuming all goes well though, your passport will have some really cool souvenirs in it for the rest of your life. They really fill up a passport quickly and make it look cool.

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  1. The most annoying hurdle to jump through for a travel visa looks like Saudi Arabia, which now requires HIV/AIDS test for official visitors, among many other things.

  2. Good insight about the false travel itineraries…I will definitely do that next time.

  3. I can only imagine how many visas are in your passport. It probably looks like a George Costanza wallet LOL!

    I always use passport agencies to get my visas when I travel. I live in North Carolina and there are no consulates here. It is costly but work pays so I dont care!

  4. Lee, good rundown on getting visas. It is definitely annoying and expensive but the process is pretty easy usually. I do the fake itinerary/hotel booking all the time, I will use the hotel as a reference on the visa form. I also check TIMATIC and to determine visa requirements. Traveldocs also has downloadable PDF visa applications. I have dual US/UK passports so I can shop around for the best visa price. There are several consulates in Houston so getting visas back can be very quick.

    For passport photos, I make my own. Digital camera+ resize/tile photos with Photoshop (2×2″) then upload+print a 8×10 at Walgreens. Instant 16-20 photos for about $2.

  5. I have never been to a country that I needed a visa but it sounds like a nightmare!

  6. Great call on the photos…for my West Africa trip Dec 08-Jan 09 I needed some 20 visas and went to Walgreens and did like 60 copies and I used them all up on that trip. I am headed to CVS in next few days to do the same for my upcoming trip.

  7. I always hate to get visas as well because they always end up costing more than you think. Plus you have to include postage, expediting fees, money for pictures, etc as you said.

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