A visa is a magical stamp that opens a country’s borders. When the ink bleeds onto paper in a slim blue-backed book, woodland fairies and elves sing. If this were a Disney film, this moment would be highlighted with shooting stars and hearts.
This is the moment when realms of possibilities crack open, spilling wondrous light. This is why you travel.
When your passport is stamped with a new country’s visa, it sometimes feels like magic.
Ah, the intoxicating scent of fresh ink. Smell the richness. Smell the adventure. Smell the other worlds captured in a stamp.
But how to get that magical, occasionally elusive, visa stamp in your passport? Keep reading and I’ll tell you.
- Types of visas
- No visa required: in USA
- No visa required: outside USA
- Countries that require visas
- Electronic clearance or eVisa required
- Visa issued on arrival
- Visa required prior to arrival
- Notoriously difficult to get visas
- How to get a visa
A visa is a travel document issued by the country that you wish to enter as a foreign visitor. It’s an additional document, besides your passport, that is required to enter some countries.
Traveling to the world’s 196 countries requires several different types of visas for U.S. citizens. Depending on the country you’ll need:
- No visa
- Electronic clearance or eVisa
- Visa issued on arrival in country
- Visa required prior to arrival in country
No Visa Required: Within the USA & Territories
Within the United States’ 50 states, you don’t need a visa. If you’re traveling from Boston to Anchorage, no need for a visa; or, Honolulu to Austin, no visa. Most people know that.
This region also includes territories, freely associated states, and insular areas that aren’t part of the 50 states. For the most part, these areas are islands. Like Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean. Or, American Samoa and Midway Islands, in the Pacific Ocean.
Here’s the full list of insular areas that U.S. citizens don’t require a visa to explore:
- American Samoa
- Northern Mariana Islands
- Puerto Rico
- U.S. Virgin Islands
- Marshall Islands
- Federated States of Micronesia
For Canada and Mexico, children under 16 can enter each country without a passport. Present their original certified birth certificate to get into the country. However, this rule only applies to road trips. Entering Canada or Mexico by any other method — plane, train, boat — and your children will need passports, especially to get back into the USA. If you are traveling as a single parent with your children, be sure to carry a letter of permission, preferably notarized, by the other parent.
Holding a U.S. passport throws open 174 countries’ borders to explore. No visa is required for countries like Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, or Estonia. However, you’re only allowed to stay in a specific country without a for a certain number of days. If you go over that allowed stay, be prepared for hassle (and perhaps a fine) when you leave the country.
Here’s a list of countries with a 90-day minimum stay that don’t require a visa:
Grab your passport, book your flights, pack your carry on, and hit the tarmac. It’s free, uncomplicated travel at its finest.
Beware: For some countries, your time on the ground may be limited. It can vary from one month to one year.
Here’s a list of countries with allowed stays other than 90 days that don’t require a visa:
Others, like the Schengen Area, have a caveat rule of 90 days within any 180 day period.
What the heck is the Schengen Area?
The Schengen Area is made up of 26 European states that have officially abolished the need for passports and visas at their borders. In other words, this area operates like a single country with a common visa policy. These countries are marked by an asterisk in the table above.
So, what about that 90 days in any 180 day period policy?
To enter the Schengen Area — including the popular countries of Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France to name a few — you don’t need a visa. Over the course of 180 days, as a non-Schengen Area citizen, you’re allowed 90 total days in the area. These days don’t need to be consecutive. When day 181 arrives, the count resets itself.
How to Legally Stay Longer than 90 Days in the Schengen Area
Feeling a little stifled with a 90 day limit imposed on your adventuring? Not to worry. You don’t have to book a flight home just yet.
Nomadic Matt recommends, “With so many visa rules, it’s easy to stay in Europe beyond 90 days as a tourist — you just need to mix up the countries you visit. Most non-Schengen countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Croatia, Ireland, and some Balkan countries allow you to stay for up to 60 or 90 days.”
“So all you need to do is spend 90 days in the Schengen Area, visit the UK, go to the Balkans, hang out in Ukraine, or drink wine in Moldova. If you align your schedule right, you can easily be out of the Schengen Area for 90 days and then head back into the Schengen Area.”
Want to stay longer than 90 days and not leave the Schengen Area? You have three options: get a working holiday visa, a long-term-stay visa, get a student visa, or get a self-employed visa from Germany. Or, opt for the old-school method and get married to a European.
Countries Requiring Visas
To visit the other countries in the world, you’ll need a visa.
Some countries issue a visa upon arrival. Other countries require a visa before arrival. If you don’t have a visa when you arrive, it’s bad news.
Here’s the list of the countries that require a visa:
Remember that visa issued on arrival? The + designates those countries in this list.
Editor’s Note: An obvious (and commonly traveled) omission from this list is Australia, which requires US citizens to register for an electronic visa in advance of arrival in the country; there is more information specific to Australia below. One of my worst travel mishaps was overlooking this and assuming a reciprocal visa on arrival agreement between the US and Australia. We were very nearly stuck in Indonesia for a while longer!
An electronic visa is an alternative to a paper, sticker, or stamp visa. It affords you the same rights to enter the country as you would on a normal visa. Instead of mailing your passport and visa application to a consulate office, complete the visa application online.
Sometimes the issued visa is a card with a magnetic stripe, or an emailed visa approval, sometimes it’s simply information in a computer tied to your passport number. In the future, electronic visas could look like credit cards with your information (name, travel information, visa approval) stored on it.
Apply via an online application. The format of the issued visa may differ slightly. Moldova issues an eVisa in a PDF format. Australia links your visa directly to your passport.
Issued a PDF version of your visa? Keep an electronic copy of your eVisa saved on your smartphone or laptop. Even better, print it off on old-fashioned paper just in case technology fails. Keep in mind that the technology failing might be theirs, not yours. Paper back ups are always a good idea in the more adventurous places on the planet.
A handful of countries issue you a visa upon arrival in their country. Perfect for the spontaneous types who enjoy a thrill of unknown excitement rather than advance planning.
To increase the odds in your favor, make sure your passport has six months of validity and at least two blank visa pages. Also, carry a few passport sized and style photos of yourself. And, let’s be honest, have some small bills in the local currency on hand. Some countries operate by the age-old bribery system in approving a visa.
Chris Guillebeau, author and world traveler to all 196 countries had this experience:
“A few years ago in West Africa, I had to travel overland between Benin and Nigeria twice. This border crossing is known as one of the most corrupt in the world, and it certainly met my expectations for entrepreneurial activity among the numerous officials.”
“From the moment I entered the Nigerian side, I encountered at least ten requests for bribes. The first one was pretty straightforward—a soldier took my passport, put it behind his back, and asked, “What do you have for me today?””
“I thought that was pretty considerate. No need to waste time with formalities or explain the technical details of why you need to pay up.”
“I told him I had a visa that I had already paid more than $100 for. Because the visa was so expensive, I said, regretfully I had no more money to pay at the border.”
“He let me go, and I had similar encounters with the next five or six guys. (I’m not exaggerating.) In each encounter I managed to get away without paying anything, which I considered to be a great success. They were clearly trying to intimidate visitors, reasoning that many of them will pay at least something to get through unobstructed.”
The process of getting a visa on arrival varies from country to country. In some places, pay a fee to a immigration officer and you’re in.
Other countries make you jump through more hoops: fill out a form, provide a photograph for your visa, pay a fee, go through a different immigration line, bring copy of hotel reservations, copy of flight itinerary, and copy of recent bank statement. (Bolivia requires the last three for their visa.)
Carefully research the specifics required by your destination country for a visa issued on arrival, so that you’ll have all your documents collected and ready.
United Arab Emriates is unusual as U.S. citizen receive their 30 day visa free of charge.
A good number of countries require you to obtain a visa before arriving. Check out the list here and check for up to date visa requirements on this site.
The easy-going Australia is your problem child. To get a visa for this Land Down Under, you must apply for a visa before going to Australia.
The Australian Visa Bureau instructs: “Tourists from the United States to Australia can apply online for an instant travel visa… before starting the journey to Australia.” Your visa application is processed instantly, takes about 48 hours for the visa to be granted, and is electronically linked to your passport. You’ll have 12 months from date of issue to use the visa.
If you’re not the planning ahead-type and want to see the great outback, switch it up and plan ahead a little, before the winds of travel divert you from Australia because of a visa problem.
Expect 41 often-intrusive questions on your visa application, including who is paying for your Russian trip, details of any training in firearms or explosives, and a list of all countries you’ve visited in last ten years with dates.
Can you remember all those dates? I won’t hold my breath.
Keith Vinecke, chemical engineer for Amalgamated Research LLC, has frequently traveled to Russia for business on a business visa that wasn’t easy to get.
He has this to say about visas for Russia:
“Depending on the time of year, visa approval can take several weeks,” he said. “My visa took about three weeks to process. My company had sent it to the San Francisco embassy as it has a reputation for being the fastest, but I had to get my passport overnighted back to me. When I got my visa for Australia, it took about ten minutes online and cost $12.”
“Russia is notoriously strict about visas. You must have a sponsor or company invitation to come to Russia. Get this before you even try. This step, more than anything else, will probably slow the process. When you fill out the online application, write down and do not lose the number generated for your application. You also need to know the names of the Russian region(s) you will be visiting.”
“Want a Russian visa? Plan far ahead. We started our visa process six months before we left. I really recommend applying for multi-entry and multi-year visa. (3 years is max.) This site is great for visa information.”
“Russia restricts travel within the country a lot. When you arrive, you will be given a small piece of paper at customs. DO NOT LOSE THIS. This is basically your entry/exit paperwork. If you lose it, prepare for a lot of hassle getting back out. I didn’t lose mine, but a guy on the trip before me did. Also, we had to have our passports copied by the local police and let them know the dates we’d be in the region.”
The U.S. State Department is holding you back. Traveling to Cuba for tourism? Not allowed, technically, but there are some loop holes and travel between the USA and Cuba is slowly opening.
Travel is only allowed to Cuba for specific reasons in 12 licenses, such as family visits, official business of the U.S. government, journalistic activity, professional research and meetings, or educational activities.
Each country requires different steps for applying for a tourist visa. For detailed instructions, check out that country’s embassy visa page.
Before you apply for a visa:
- Check the current validity of your passport: You’ll need a passport valid for at least 90 days following your departure date. However, many countries require 6 months validity on your passport for your visa to be approved.
- Ensure your passport has at least two blank visa pages: This is necessary so that new arrival and departure stamps can be added. Need more pages? You’re out of luck. As of January 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of State will no longer add extra visa pages into passports. Apply for a new passport (or a second passport).
- Confirm whether you need any transit visas for connecting flights: Countries you’re passing through may require a separate transit visa. Double-check the visa requirements of the specific country of your connecting flight.
- Determine whether you need a visa and if so, which category of visa you’ll need based on your purpose of travel: Check out VisaHQ’s super easy website for quick answers on visa requirements. If you’re traveling for pleasure, you’ll need a tourist visa.
Now, this is where things get hairy. For the sake of clarity, I’ll pick a specific country (let’s go to China) and walk-through the visa application steps.
How to get a visa:
- Follow the above steps #1-5.
- Submit your application to the Visa Office: Of Chinese Embassy or Consulate General per your state of residence. China has one embassy in Washington D.C. and five consulates-general scattered around the USA. Pick the correct destination for your visa application to avoid delays or denials. I live in Colorado, so my visa application goes to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.
- Make sure your application includes all required documents: For an L visa (aka the tourist visa for China), send in your original passport, copy of your passport’s data page (and photo page, if separate), visa application form with a photo on glossy photo paper glued to the form, proof of legal stay, photocopy of previous Chinese passports or visas.
- Send in and pay the application fee: China’s L visa fee is $140 for single entry visa for U.S. citizen. Beware: this application fee usually must be paid in your destination country’s currency. And it must be accurate. Or your application will be denied.
- State Department’s Website: Get the lowdown on the country you’ll be visiting. Includes travel warnings, embassy and consulate information, and safety risks. Best of all, this site has entry/exit visa requirements (including links to that country’s embassy website). Guaranteed to be your best friend in plotting out visa needs.
- Travel Document Systems: A service with 30 years of experience for expedited visa, U.S. passport, and authentication of documents. Need a Russian invite to begin your Russian visa application? These guys can help you.
- Visa HQ: Chris Guillebeau, who traveled to all 196 countries of the world, used this visa service. My favorite part of this site? Type in your citizenship and destination country to get visa info for free.
- Russian Embassy: Hankering to see Russia? Navigate the muddy waters of Russian visa applications with this informative site.
Don’t let a visa trip up your travel plans. Take the time to do a little planning in advance of departure.
Your cheat sheet to visas: