Updated May 28, 2020.
It’s Travel Tip Tuesday, and summer travel season is right around the corner! So you’re wondering how to go about getting a tourist visa. Do I need one? How soon should I start the process? Do I seriously have to send my passport? It can all be a bit murky and a little confusing, so here’s a brief guide based on some lessons learned by yours truly. This is geared toward American travelers, but the principles hold true for passport holders everywhere!
1. Your Passport MUST Have a Minimum of 6 Months’ Validity
OK, so you know you need a passport to travel outside the United States. And you even worked it out so that you can squeeze one more trip out of your passport before it expires. But wait! Did you know you are required to have at least 6 months’ validity on your current passport in order to travel with it? So yes, your passport is really only good for 9.5 years, not the full 10. Check your passport’s expiration date before you start to make travel plans!
2. Ensure You Have Room in Your Passport
This is very important. Some countries require a full page in your passport for their visa. That’s just the way it is. Some countries offer a loose page visa if you don’t have a full page free, but it’s always better to just have that full page available.
3. It’s Usually Best to DIY
I know how it is. You want to be nice to your friends who have never traveled before, so you offer to get their visa for them. Don’t do it! Each person needs to be responsible for his or her own visa. This is not mean-spirited, this is to help you keep your own sanity. Feel free to direct them to the embassy’s website, offer guidance, even stand over their shoulder as they fill out a form, but when it comes down to it, let them do it themselves. It will save you a lot of headache! (I know from experience.)
Also, don’t go with a third-party. They will charge you way too much, and you’ll have to give them your personal information. Very often when you Google “How to get an australian visa” or “How to get a Cambodian visa,” the first several websites will be for third-party services. Don’t do it! You’re a responsible traveler, and people do this every day… you can, too!
4. Start Early
As soon as you decide to go somewhere, before you even purchase your ticket, check the embassy’s website to see what the requirements are. Things to look for are timing (within a certain number of days before your trip?), materials (passport? copy of your passport? 2×2 photos [obtained at mainstream pharmacies and some other places]?), money (cash only? are checks or credit cards accepted?), and method (mail in? online? in person?).
5. Follow the Instructions
Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. You must follow their process. Don’t think you know better, because you don’t! You will be visiting their country; this will help you practice doing things their way. If you have to mail it in with a prepaid return envelope, write down the exact verbiage from their instructions and ask your local post office worker to help you find and pay for the specific mailing materials and method.
Doing it right the first time will save you stress, time, and big money! If you’re not sure what something in their instructions means, Google it, call the embassy, or e-mail the contact info on their website. It will be worth a little legwork to get it done right.
More tips here: Money and Saving for Travel
6. Read the Fine Print
Details are so important! When you go to the embassy’s website, be sure to read everything. How soon can you apply? When is the deadline to apply? How long will the process take? If I must mail my passport, do I need to supply a return envelope? (In all cases, yes! Ask how much this will cost and what envelopes to use at your local post office.) May I mail a copy of my passport, or must I send the real thing? How do I pay? What else do I need to send in? Forms, passport photos, a lock of hair for DNA testing? (I’m teasing with the hair sample!)
Now the question you may be asking is, where can I travel without a visa? The answer varies depending on your country of citizenship, but a few considerations for Americans are:
- Anywhere within the EU
- British Virgin Islands
- Antarctica (though you will need one of your point of access takes you through South America)
- Brazil in the summer of 2016
- Hong Kong
- And many more!
This site has some handy visa requirement lists for you!
A quick Internet search will tell you what countries require what kind of visa and how long your maximum stay can be in that country.
Where would you like to go? Have you ever had a memorable visa experience? For more about visas and passports, check out my Travel Tips Page!
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