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Visa Basics

Written by Jessica on April 21, 2011

Passports and VisasIf you’re new to international travel, acquiring a visa can be very confusing. Rules and regulations differ depending on your citizenship, country of residence and where you’re headed. Here are a few tips to help you understand the basics and avoid making mistakes.

What is a Visa?

No, it’s not the credit card that’s accepted everywhere Master Card isn’t. It’s a document, a stamp, sticker, or simply an electronic record. A visa is issued to an individual, by a government, and allows you to enter a country.

Who needs a Visa?

That’s a complicated question. Short answer: you need a visa if you are traveling to a country you are not a citizen of, and a visa waiver program does not exist between your home country and your destination country.

To further explain, whether you need a visa depends on:

Your citizenship

Let’s face it, some countries are sketchier than others. Does this mean you’re going to be profiled? Probably. Does it mean governments make rules based on strange stereotypes? Absolutely. Every country has friends and enemies. As a citizen you are treated as an extension of your country, not as an individual. Get used to it.

Country of residence

Citizen of Egypt, but resident of China? Totally different visa process. My husband is a South African citizen and a resident of the US, with a green card. He doesn’t need a visa for most African countries because of his citizenship. And he doesn’t need a visa for most Central American countries because of his green card. However, unlike an American citizen, he does need a visa to go anywhere in the EU.

Your destination

Going to the US? Get in line, you’ll need a visa. Sorry about that. Going to the country next door? Probably don’t need a visa. Visa regulations vary depending on where you are from and where you’re going. A US citizen going to Zimbabwe needs a $200 visa. Going to Malawi, come on in!

The length of your trip

Thirty days? No problem! Want to stay for a year? A little more difficult. More than a year? Good luck with that! Every countries has different rules, but generally tourist visas are good for 60-90 days. Extensions are sometimes allowed.

What you plan to do

Just being a tourist? Yay! Everyone loves tourists. Just don’t forget your credit cards. Studying abroad? Not too hard, just get accepted to a school first. Want to work overseas? Complicated. Be prepared for lots of paperwork.

How to find out if you need a visa

There are a lot of resources available for checking if you need a visa. More official sources will always have better information. Visa regulations change constantly, always check with your local consulate before making plans!

Start simple

Check out online resources or a guidebook. They can give you an overview of local rules and regulations and may also provide links to more official information. If you are from the US, Canada, EU or Australia can find information in most guidebooks. Always check the publication date of the guidebook, and confirm the information with an official source.

Embassy / Consulate Websites

The most accurate information can be found on the website of your destination’s embassy for your country of residence. In other words, a US citizen who wants to go to Italy should look up the Italian consulate in the US. If a consulate doesn’t exist in your country, try looking for an official website for the country you are visiting. A Google search should produce good results.

Most consulates will provide a list of citizenships eligible for a “visa waiver”. If you are eligible, congratulations, you don’t need a visa. US and EU citizens have it pretty easy when traveling worldwide. Of course there are plenty of exceptions.

Visa sites

There are plenty of websites that offer services to apply for visas on your behalf. VisaHQ is the most common site. Be aware that their information is often out of date! And, in my experience, inaccurate if your country of citizenship and residence are different.

How to Apply for Visas

There’s quite a few ways to obtain a visa. Not all are possible for every country.

Before Leaving

In the past the most common way to get a visa was to mail your passport with an application and some money to the nearest consulate. In a few weeks they will mail your passport back with a shiny new visa sticker.

Electronic filing is an uncommon option that I hope catches. Some countries, like Australia, began offering this service recently. It’s as simple as filling out the online form and you’re in the system.

On the other hand, some countries require you to present yourself in person at the consulate. A major inconvenience if the nearest consulate is on the other side of the country.

Either way, if the consulate says you need a visa in advance, get one in advance! Don’t be that guy who holds up the customs line because you didn’t bother to get a visa. They will send you back home!

While Traveling

A lot of spur of the moment things happen while you travel. One day you’re enjoying a pina colada in Mexico, the next day friends want you to come with them to Brazil. What’s a gal to do? Go to the Brazilian consulate in Mexico. Duh!

Ok, fair enough. It’s never that simple. I had a Thai friend living in the US, who wanted to go to Sweden with her Chilean boyfriend. They had to go from the US to Chile to Thailand then to Sweden. Sometimes you can get a visa in a country other than your own, sometimes you can’t. It’s always worth checking.

At the border

Quite a few countries require a visa, or rather a “tourist permit”. This is nothing more than a stamp you get at the border. In other places, you must have a proper visa, and you can get it at the border. In some places this means you’re going to be sitting on an uncomfortable chair in an non-air conditioned rat hole with no bathroom for six hours waiting for the official to get back from his “lunch break”.

If you know for certain you are going to visit a country, and you have the time to get the visa in advance, then do it! If you’re plans are fickle or you’re short on time, the border is your only other option.


Every visa has restrictions. Some are merely an inconvenience, others are a serious pain in the rear. Make sure you know what your restrictions are in advance. It will save you a lot of hassle down the road.

Length of Stay

Most countries restrict the amount of time you can stay to 30, 60 or 90 days. And some will set your length of stay to the exact itinerary you provide (like Schengen visas for the EU). This means you have to know exactly when you will enter and leave the country.

Some countries allow you to extend or renew your visa by leaving the country and crossing back in. Other countries, like Australia, require that you leave for at least a year before you come back again.
Just remember that overstaying your visa is not something to take lightly. Although it’s not likely someone is going to hunt you down, it does reduce your chances of ever being allowed back into that country.

Number of Entries

How many times are you going to enter an leave your destination country? Most of the time, the answer is one. However, if you’re hanging out in Tanzania and decide to go to Malawi for the weekend, you’ll need a double entry visa. Most countries offer single or multiple entry visas, typically the more entries you need, the more the visa will cost.


All visas expire. Usually after a year. Expiration isn’t the same as length of stay, it means you have to enter the country by a certain date. Sometimes the clock starts ticking the date the visa is issued, or it may start when you first enter the country.

Going to China a year from now? Got your visa last week? Too bad it will expire before you make it to the border. Be careful of the expiration. They aren’t always well documented, and if your travel plans change, you could be in for another pile of paperwork.


#3 Jessicam 2013-02-09 13:23
Sorry, wrong link, here is the wrong one:
#2 Jessicam 2013-02-09 13:22
Hi Dean,
If you are a US citizen you do not need a visa for COlombia or Ecuador. If you are a citizen of another country try googling if you need one. For more specifics on the Colombia/Ecuado r border see our specific report here: m/plan-and-prep are/69-visa-bas ics#comment-371
Dean Jones
#1 Dean Jones 2013-02-06 15:05
Is a Visa required prior to entry into Columbia or Ecuador or can you obtain them once you arrive?

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