Visas, as in the Documents, not the Cards

My currently, soon to be former, job is actually as a visa coordinator for a travel company. Essentially what that means is I spend my days helping people traveling with us get the visas they need. Usually when I tell people what I do they respond with, “Oh, so like a visa card?”

Ummmm….no.

For those of you who have never had to get a visa before, it is essentially the government of a country allowing you to be there for a specific length of time for a specific purpose (tourism, business, volunteer work, etc). So how do you know if you need a visa or not? How do you know which visa you need? I’ll walk you through a couple of the basics on navigating the visa process. Heads up, this post is pretty long as visas can be a rather complicated process at times.

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Look it up before you buy flights!

Do I need a visa?

So you’ve decided where you want to go on your trip, now you just need to double check if you need a visa before you book those non refundable flights. There are two primary ways that I find this information, one is through government travel advisories, and the other is going directly to the embassy or consulate website for that country. My first stop as a Canadian passport holder is always to the Canadian Government’s Travel Advisories web page. All you need to do is select which country you are planning to visit and under Entry/Exit Requirements you will see information about how long your passport needs to be valid for and whether or not you need a visa for tourism purposes (and a few other visa types too). Most governments (that I’ve researched anyway) have a similar webpage to advise their citizens travelling abroad. I find this is the quickest way to know what you need and how long you can stay.

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Making sure your documents are all in order is critical to making sure you don’t have any surprises of the variety that can derail an entire trip

If you are still unsure, or if it says you do need a visa, then you can search for similar information by looking at the countries specific consular/embassy web page. Heads up some website are better than others, and depending on which country you are in there may not be representation for that particular country in your country. Search ” Embassy of [country you want to visit] in [country you’re in] visas,” usually that will bring you to where you need to be. Be careful that when you are doing these searches that you go to the actual government web page, the most trust worth source is always an official government source. If there is no representation in your country, look for where your country is represented (ex. the Embassy of Cambodia in Washington DC is responsible for both USA and Canada), or look at the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

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Canadians don’t need a visa to visit Italy, but if you have less than three months validity left on your passport you wont even be able to get on a plane.

So you checked, and no you don’t need a visa. But did you check your passport? Each country has requirements for how long your passport must be valid for to allow you to enter the country (6 months, 3 months, duration of stay, etc.) even if they don’t require you to have a visa. Airlines also have similar restrictions, though usually they align with whichever country you are traveling to. Safest bet is to not travel on a passport that has less than 6 months validity if possible. When you get to that point, start the renewal process. If you have to (ie. you don’t have enough time to renew it due to needing your passport), then check what each country requires (use the same website as above) and then call you airline to be sure you’ll be okay and not denied boarding or be turned around at customs.

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Did you know that when traveling by cruise ship you typically don’t need a visa even when you are going to a country where you’d need a visa? Because of the fact that you are staying over night on the ship, typically you are covered by the ship’s “Blanket Visa” for your shore excursions! This does not, however, cover any visas needed for the country you begin and end your trip in.

Type, Entries, and Validity

So at this point you (hopefully) know you whether or not you need a visa, but how do you understand the restrictions around it? First step is determine what type of visa you need. If you are just going for a holiday, then just a simple tourist visa will do you. Tourist visa, however, do not allow you to hold a job while you are in the country. If you are going for work purposes you will need to look at business visas or whether light work (ie. attending meetings) are encompassed by the tourist visa. Other types of visas include, volunteer work, special visas for conferences or sporting events, journalist, transit, working holiday visas, etc. Always pick the visa that best fists your situation–not just the one that has the easiest paperwork!

Quick word about transit visas. Generally speaking if you are flying through the airport but not crossing through customs, you don’t need a visa. Which does mean that if you have to pick up your luggage and change terminals you may have to get a visa! However, some passport types and some destinations do require you to have a transit visa just to fly through the airport (the USA is one of these countries). When you are check to see if you need a visa, be sure to make sure you don’t need a transit visa either.

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The USA is a destination where you will need a visa just to transit through!

Next up is the number of entries that you will need–the number of times you will exit and re-enter the country. For instance, if you were visiting China and wanted to go to Hong Kong, if you have a single entry visa you would not be able to to re-enter mainland China without a getting a new visa after your arrival in Hong Kong. You should have gone for a different number of possible entries. Simply think through your itinerary and make sure you apply for the appropriate number of entries.

Lastly, validity usually simply means how long you are allowed to stay in the country (30 days, 6 days, 2 years, etc). Occasionally your visa will have two sets of validity. One is the length of time you have to remain in the country, and one is the length of time you have to enter the country from the date your visa is issued. I have this restriction on my recently issued Youth Mobility visa for the UK.  I listed an approximate earliest date of entry to the country, and so on that date my visa becomes valid (I can enter the UK on it), but if I do not enter within 30 days of that date, my visa will expire. Once I officially enter the country, I have a further 2 years to stay. You follow? Validity is the big one in all this, you don’t want to having flights booked for the wrong dates or trying to leave the country with an expired visa. I know one guy who managed to smile his way out of China on an expired visa, this tactic is not recommended.

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Applying: What you need to look for

Applying for a visa is a whole other ball game–and one that will be specific to each visa that you apply for. Since I spend a fair amount of my time building instruction kits for applying for visas these are the basic thing I know you need to look for when trying to figure out how to apply:

  • Application: there always is one, find it and fill it in to the best of your abilities.
  • Passport: Yes, unless specified you do have to send your original passport to the consulate/embassy. Some times there are specific requirements, like having two blank pages in your passport, be sure to read carefully for those.
  • Photo for Application: Some countries are more particular than others about size and style. If they are, trust me they will list all the details you need to have this done correctly.
  • Visa Fee: Fees will vary based on how long it takes to process your visa, what type of visa you are applying for, number of entries required, and often times whether it is being received by post or submitted in person. There is also generally a specific list of ways you can pay the fee (whether online, bank draft, money order, cash, credit card,etc.), make sure you arrange for the appropriate one.
  • Additional Documents: This varies from country to country, and application to application. Honestly, the best thing you can do is read all entries in this category carefully to make sure they do or do not apply to you. Common extras are proof of air tickets, proof of accommodations, and proof of insurance.
  • Processing Time: Generally speaking, if the consulate says they will process your visa in 10 business days, they actually will. That being said, there is never any guarantees with visas, so do not leave it to the last moment to apply.
  • Submitting Your Application: Lastly, you need to double check how you are able to submit your visa and to where. Consulates/Embassies service particular regions, so be sure you are sending your documents to the one responsible for your area. Also, be sure you can send your application by post or if it is required that you appear in person (this is common when they need to take biometrics–photo and finger prints–along with your application). If you are appearing in person, but sure to note the appointment policy for the consulate–some what you to make an appointment and others will let you just show up.
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China was the first visa I ever had to do, and it was a cultural exchange visa rather than a far simpler tourist visa. Many lessons learned!

Final Thoughts

That was a lot of info, I know. But here’s the thing, if you don’t take the time to apply properly, you could be in for a world of mess. Visa fees are for the most part non refundable so if you screw it up you can be out a couple hundred dollars–and this is without taking into account things like flights and accommodations. Always check carefully what you need to enter a country before you start booking anything–it will save you so much time and heart ache finding out that you can’t take that last minute trip you just paid for because you can’t get a visa in time.

So this is what it comes down to: check if you need a visa, make sure you have 6 months remaining on your passport from when you return home, and make sure you have enough time to apply if you do need a visa. When in doubt, email the embassy or consulate, they will be able to give you the best specific information. If you have covered all of the above, then you are good to go!

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