This article is a travel topic
A visa is a document, normally affixed within the passport, allowing the bearer or alien to apply for entry into the country in question. It simply allows the alien to present himself to an immigration officer at a designated port-of-entry. It does not, however, automatically guarantee entry into that country. Only a very few countries (not known for tourism) require exit visas.
Many popular travel destinations provide visitors with a free short-term visa on arrival stamped into their passport. This article deals mainly with visas which must be obtained in advance and have a fee. It's important to find out which of these two situations applies to your destination.
Be sure your passport does not expire within the next 6 months! Otherwise, you will probably be denied entry and/or refused a visa until a new passport is presented. In some cases, the requirement is six months from your planned date of entry, rather than today's date. (This doesn't apply to visa-free land borders at the boundary of your home country, as passports are usually good up to their expiration.)
Do you need a visa?
Countries require visas from visitors for regulatory, security and economic reasons. It is important to confirm visa information with a current and reliable source, such as the embassy of where you're traveling. You may need a visa for any countries you visit or transit on your trip. Visa requirements vary depending on the nationality of your passport, the length of your stay, whether you will leave the airport, the nature of your trip, your point of entry, and the areas you will be visiting. These requirements can also change regularly.
Your residency usually does not matter in whether or not you need a visa, only the nationality indicated by your passport. For this reason, if you are a non-citizen where you currently reside, never rely on local advice as to whether you need a visa to visit a nearby foreign country or other popular location abroad. They may not need a visa, while you do.
Also, be sure you will be allowed back into the country where you are residing. If you are not a permanent resident and not a citizen, you may need a permanent residence visa in your foreign passport to be allowed to return.
On the other hand, your residency does matter in where you go to obtain the visa. See the section: Obtaining the visa below.
In advance or at point of entry?
Many popular travel destinations provide visitors for tourism with a free short-term visa on arrival stamped into their passport. Others will accept payment and issue a visa on arrival for a fee. Still others require an application and visa to be in your passport in advance, and prior to boarding any flight.
If visas are issued at points of entry, sometimes they are only issued at some points of entry. For example in some developing countries major airports may issue visas on arrival, but some land borders may require a visa issued in advance.
When visa fees are charged they can vary according to your nationality, the number of times you will enter, the length of stay, and sometimes how and where you apply. If visas are available at the border, it might be significantly cheaper to get one there, rather than acquiring one in advance.
Should your own country charge a fee for visitors of your destination, a reciprocal visa policy and fee may apply. Sometimes particular nationalities are charged additional visa fees for reasons that are difficult to ascertain, with country groups assigned to particular fee bands. Brazil and China are both known to do this, levying a US$130 fee for US citizens to apply for a visa to match what the US charges Brazilians and Chinese.
If you are travelling around border regions you can often reduce visa fees by structuring your movements around such fees, taking an open jaw flight into one country and out of its neighbour can avoid multiple entry fees. If taking a quick visit to a neighbouring country, keeping your trip to a single day can often avoid fees too.
Children are sometimes charged a reduced fee, or no fee at all. The maximum age of the child can vary from under 12 up to 18.
Classes of visas
Visas come in many forms, so it is important to obtain the appropriate visa for what you intend to do. Attempting to enter the host country on an incorrect visa can see you refused entry, and even banned from reentry. Not all countries offer the same types of visas. Here are some of the most common varieties:
Tourist Visas are issued to persons wishing to travel to a country for sightseeing or vacation. Most tourist visas last for, at most, six months. A few may last five years (for periodic visits), but these usually have a hefty fee.
Transit Visas are issued to people passing through the country without a significant stay, normally for anywhere from 24 hours to ten days.
Business Visas are issued if one needs to conduct financial transactions in the country, sign contracts, attend training or meetings, and a plethora of work-related activities, but employment is prohibited.
Student Visas are issued to those who wish to undertake a course of study in another country. Proof of enrollment is necessary.
Work Visas are permits allowing one to hold a paid job in the destination country for a period of time. These are notoriously hard to acquire unless special arrangements exist between your home country and the destination country. This is because the primary requirement of this is that no one in the local job market possesses the skills and qualifications required for the job, as the employer has to justify why they need to look for an employee from far away.
Working Holiday Visas are work visas that allow short-term jobs to be undertaken to subsidize a vacation.
Religious Pilgrimage Visas, such as visas given for the Hajj, entitle the bearer to visit a religious shrine or site. These are common in most Muslim countries.
Retirement Visas allow one to reside in a country indefinitely, so long as they abide by the law and don't seek paid employment. See Retiring_abroad#Visas.
Immigrant Visas permit one to resettle in a country.
As the mechanics for long-term and work visas can get complicated, it is advisable to engage the services of an immigration attorney to properly assess your eligibility for the desired type of visa, and facilitate the necessary paperwork.
Conditions to get a visa
Some countries require that your passport does not expire within the next 6 months In some cases, the requirement is six months from your date of entry, rather than the visa application date.
Having a criminal record in your home country may be grounds for denial of a visa. It can also be grounds for refusal of entry when travelling without a visa. This is true even for countries with land borders and no visa requirement for tourists such as at the U.S.-Canadian border. To avoid disappointment, it's best to inquire at the nearest embassy or consulate. In some cases, this information might be on the host country's web site. However, it is still best to inquire about your particular situation, as legal matters can be enormously complex--especially in an international context. Differences between American and British English can come into play as well. In short, the host country's definition of a certain crime may be totally different from your own. If you have a criminal record it is usually best to apply for a visa in advance, as being refused a visa at entry is considerably more inconvenient. If you have declared your criminal record during the visa application and it is granted, then you are unlikely to be refused admission for that reason at the border crossing.
It is also important that you have not violated the terms of any previously-issued visas to you. In other words, you should have not for instance overstayed by even just a single day or worked on a tourist/student visa. Doing so makes it very difficult to re-apply and be granted another visa.
Being in a stable financial and employment situation is strongly advised as it can demonstrate that you have less reason to potentially overstay or violate your visa. Hence, be ready to procure financial documents from your bank, certificate of employment, affidavit of support, etc. in advance in case the consulate requests this. If you are applying for a work or immigrant visa, the financial situation of the prospective host or employer will also be very important.
Entry without a visa
Some countries permit certain nationalities to enter without an advance visa, but other conditions may apply for entry and the stay. For example, all nationalities in the European Union can generally freely travel from one country to another with almost no restrictions. The United States allows certain nationals to enter under the Visa Waiver Program for tourism and business only, provided they fill out an online application prior to their arrival.
Some countries still do not require transit visas for transits of certain lengths, such as Saudi Arabia (in airport, 18 hours),China, and the United Kingdom (only applies to certain visa required nationals).
If your destination allows others of your nationality in without a visa, don't automatically assume that you won't need one, especially if you are planning to stay for extended periods (i.e. to work, study or immigrate either temporarily or permanently). In fact, it's a good idea to inquire if you're traveling for any reason other than being a typical "tourist". This includes getting married, speaking to an audience or congregation (even if unpaid), journalism, research, professional photography, etc. Check to make certain of your status before entry. In some cases you may in fact need a visa, in others you may simply need to bring more documentation to the border. For example, Canada requires all non-visa nationals (apart from US Citizens living in a handful of border communities and who hold a special NEXUS expedited border clearance card) present a letter of invitation if they're seeking entry for any reason outside the scope of traditional tourism - including visiting family or friends. Also, you may need a special visa if you visit remote areas where indigenous people live who are not part of the mainstream society (e.g. parts of the Amazon Basin, Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the coast of India, etc.)
Obtaining the visa in advance
If you are using a travel agent for your booking, then often they will find out the visa requirements, and arrange the visas for you for a fee. However, some travel agents may be unaware of or unwilling to take care of visa requirements for third country nationals, so when in doubt, always contact the relevant embassy or consulate to find out which procedures are necessary.
There are a broad range of application procedures when a visa is required in advance. Some countries, such as Iran, Armenia, Cambodia, and Australia, offer an electronic visa service for tourists where you can apply and pay any required fees online. Other countries require attendance in person for an interview at an embassy or consulate.
If you are not using an agent, the best starting place is the website of the embassy of the country you are visiting that services your country. They will usually describe the procedure for application, often including the forms you will need to download and print. Follow the instructions carefully. Some embassies and consulates will not accept visa applications by postal mail.
Embassies are normally located in the national capital city (London, Paris, Rome, etc.) Consulates are a branch of an embassy, usually located far away from the capital. For example, Los Angeles and San Francisco have many consulates, as these are major cities thousands of miles/kilometers away from Washington DC. Generally, small countries have no need for consulates at all, with the possible exception of a neighboring country having a few consulates to reduce the load on the main embassy, and to make it more convenient for its citizens who are just across the border.
In some cases, only your designated consulate or embassy will process your visa, based on where you live. For example, if you live in a small city in the USA and are visiting Washington DC, you might not be able to apply for a visa there if the destination country has a consulate closer to your home. This is even more likely to be a problem if you visit an embassy in a third country where you are not a resident (even if it's the closest). For example, Ottawa, Canada has dozens of embassies, and can be less than an hour's drive from upstate New York. However, they may or may not be able to help a U.S. resident. Be sure to contact them ahead of time to avoid a wasted trip. On the other hand, if your travels have already begun, and you want to visit a nearby country which requires a visa, contact their nearest embassy or consulate. There's no guarantee, but they may be able to help.
A further complication can occur if you have documents that need to be authenticated by the destination country prior to travel (not common for tourist visas unless getting married). If the documents originate from a different part of the country from where you currently reside, they may have to be shipped to whichever consulate (or main embassy) that handles their particular region of origin. The most common example of this is a birth certificate issued from another state or province.
For most countries, begin the visa process at least four weeks prior to your trip. This will ensure that you can complete all of the necessary work in advance of when you desire to leave. Some countries allow for quicker turnaround times, but this comes with the obvious risk of missing your flight or paying a substantially higher fee. If you cannot visit an embassy or consulate in person, the visa may sometimes be obtained by postal mail or air express document shippers (FedEx, DHL, UPS, etc.). If this is not allowed or you prefer the added convenience, there are usually visa processing services in your home country which deal directly with the embassy.
Typically, your visa application package will consist of your passport with blank visa pages, the original and possibly several copies of the application form (including supplementary forms the embassy requests the applicant to fill-out). Other possible requirements include relevant financial information (bank statements, medical insurance, etc.), passport-like photographs (note the size requirement might vary from what's used in your own passport), vaccination information where necessary (mostly for yellow fever if you travel to an endemic region), hotel reservations/contact information for your host and plane ticket, an invitation when required (such as Algeria and Russia), local/national police clearance (not common), and an application fee. The embassies may or may not look at all these documents, but you should have them ready.
Usually, application fees are not refundable, even if your visa is denied. Keep in mind that there are some countries where a trip to the consulate is highly advised, if not mandatory. The United States requires a consular interview, as does Germany. Appointments usually have to be set prior to arrival in the embassy/consulate and you can schedule one online.
It is also important to know the holidays of your country as well as the holidays of the country you wish to enter because the embassy or consulate of the latter will be closed on either country's holidays.
Visas may be single entry or multiple entry. If your itinerary involves entering a country more than once, check whether you need to seek more than one visa, and whether you can get all of them at the same time. If travelling to and returning from a territory that has unusual status, check whether the return counts as re-entry. (For example, since Norfolk Island maintains its own immigration control, travelling from Norfolk Island to Australia counts as a separate entry onto the Australian mainland.)
If you have a criminal record, check if they will do a pre-clearance before applying and paying a visa fee. There's no sense in doing all the paperwork and paying a non-refundable fee if the visa is going to be automatically denied anyway.
A transit is when you enter a country for a short period for the purposes of transferring to an onward transport leaving the country again.
Working out which rules apply to a transit can often be more complex than working out the visitor visa requirements. Some variables include the length of your stay (often measured in hours), and whether you will need to leave the sterile transit area of an airport. Some countries that require visitors to have visas will allow transit without a visa under some conditions, but may require a transit visa if these are not satisfied.
If the transit entry conditions require you to stay in the sterile area during transit, you have to consider your luggage. Some airlines will not check your luggage through to your destination. This can be because they are a budget airline operating on a point-to-point basis, or even with multiple full-service airlines without the correct affiliations to transfer luggage between them. Countries which don't normally require visas for a sterile air-side transit may require you to procure a visitor or transit visa to collect your bags, since you technically need to enter that country to commence the rest of your journey by checking-in again by yourself. You should consider any visa application fees when comparing travel options.
Some airlines that don't normally offer to check luggage through to a final destination when fares are booked per sector online, may do so for the same flights if booked as a connecting flight by a travel agent, or as a codeshare.
After obtaining your visa
Keep careful note of the information on your visa, namely expiration dates and entries. Also, ensure that you obtained the correct classification of visa for your trip, whether it be a student or tourist visa. If not, you could get into serious legal troubles and possibly even face deportation and a lifetime ban from getting a new visa.
In some cases, your passport may expire before your visa does. You should apply for a new passport, and retain the previous one containing the visa. (Expired passports are automatically returned when applying for a renewal.) You will have to show both when entering and departing the host country.
A visa does not guarantee entry into the country or allow for the full validity period to be used. Some countries have a law which presumes aliens have immigrant intent unless they can demonstrate otherwise. You may still be denied entry at the port of entry, have your visa cancelled there and be subject to immediate deportation. So upon arrival, you must demonstrate to the passport control officer's satisfaction that you are eligible for the visa which you applied for (i.e. that you will not overstay or seek employment or permanent residence under a visitor or student visa). Don't bring stuff that an average traveler with the same type of visa wouldn't bring. This includes items such as non-travel related documents, household possessions, or commercial samples indicating you plan to reside or do business there. The other papers that you need to bring are itinerary receipts of return/onward tickets, e-mail and SMS confirmation of hotel reservations or invitations to stay with friends. Keep this important caveat in mind as you commence your travel.
The dates given on most visas are entry dates (i.e. you must enter the country before the date listed on the visa). Don't overstay your visa or entry status (unless hospitalized). Furthermore, note that the number of days given to you by the consulate doesn't necessarily match the date stamped into your passport by passport control officers. This means that if you are issued a 5-year visa at the embassy, it does NOT mean you can stay continuously in that country for the 5-year period. A date range is often stamped in your passport on arrival.
Make sure to exit before your status expires. Should you need to stay in that country for an extended period of time, you should legally apply at the nearest immigration service centre. However, it's possible that foreigners may be ineligible to apply for any type of extension.
Some travelers take a gamble by overstaying a few days, then paying a small fine at departure. This carries several risks. What used to be a small fine (perhaps even less than a visa extension) may have suddenly increased to be a whole lot more expensive. Worse yet, while still staying at your hotel, the local police may detain you for not having a valid visa. In other words, what might be acceptable to immigration officials at the airport (with your prepaid departure just hours away), is totally unacceptable to the local police. Bring your itinerary and receipt to prove you are not planning to overstay.
Once you receive your visa stamp from the consulate or get a stamp at passport control giving you admission, check the stamp for important endorsements and ask the officials for clarification if something is unclear before leaving the consul or checkpoint.
For more information about a country's entry requirements, visit that country's respective page or contact their embassy.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are two countries that have an exit visa requirement. It is not as dire as it seems, however; only certain classes require a Saudi exit visa, and the exit visa is included in Russian tourist, business, and transit visas.
If, however, you are required to obtain an exit visa, do so well in advance of your departure. It can take as many as three weeks to obtain an exit visa.
Though technically not an exit visa, upon departure, immigration officials in most countries will check your original entry visa (even if free on arrival), and remove an entry card stapled into your passport. If you lost your passport during your stay, these will probably have to be verified or replaced.