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How to Get a Travel Visa

An Introduction to Travel Visas, Requirements, and Dealing With Embassies

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Travel Visa

A visa sticker for China inside of a passport.

Photo by Greg Rodgers

No, we're not talking about the credit card. You must know how to get a visa before being allowed to visit many of the countries in Asia. A visa is an official mark in your passport which allows you to visit a particular country.

While succumbing to the whim of uniformed officials and tangled webs of bureaucracy isn't very fun, getting detained in an airport and put back on the first flight out is even less enjoyable! Some countries in Asia will deny you entry unless you already have an approved visa in your passport before arriving, or you won't even be allowed to board the flight for which you paid. That being said, it pays to do a little visa research before you start your trip!

Read on to learn how to get a visa, or if you even need one to travel.

What is a Travel Visa?

A travel visa is a stamp or sticker placed in your passport that allows entry into a particular country. Some countries use a large sticker which occupies an entire page in your passport, while others use stamps that only consume half a page of valuable passport real estate.

Most countries have many types of visas; unless you plan to seek employment, relocate, teach, or are a journalist, you will most likely want to apply for a typical "tourist visa."

How to Get a Visa?

You can apply for a visa in one of two ways: either arrange it before you leave home by mailing your passport to your destination country's embassy, or you can apply in person at a country's embassy either at home or while already abroad.

A handful of countries, such as Vietnam and India, outsource their visa processing. Visa agencies will know exactly how to get a visa for whatever country you wish to visit, and will arrange the visa electronically for a fee.

Regardless, if your destination country requires a visa to enter, you must have it already arranged before you arrive!

Processing your visa could take several days, so plan well in advance.

How to Get a Visa Before Leaving Home:

  1. Look up your destination country's embassy that is closest to you; they may have several embassies in major cities scattered throughout the US.
  2. Print out the visa application form; complete it in its entirety.
  3. Send your passport, application, fee payment, and photos or anything else the embassy requests via certified, registered mail with tracking to the consulate.
  4. If all goes well, the consulate should mail your passport back to you with your visa inside.

How to Get a Visa While Already Abroad:

You can still visit your target country's embassy while in any country in the world to apply for a visa. Each embassy may have their own processing time and unique requirements. Your application may take a day or two to process.

If applying in person, dress nice, be courteous, and remember that the officials are not obligated whatsoever to grant your visa.

Note: Embassies like to observe holidays, even more than banks. Nearly all embassies close for lunch then reopen in the afternoon, and all will observe holidays for both the local country and the country for which they represent!

Typical Visa Requirements

Every country requires that you complete an application; many countries request at least one passport photo to obtain a visa. Proof of adequate funds and an onward ticket are two requirements that are rarely enforced, depending on the whim of officials that day.

  • Application: You can usually print the visa application from the consulate website.
  • Passport Photos: If you intend to cross several borders on your trip, consider carrying a stash of passport photos with you. Each visa application may require one or two. The photos can sometimes be taken at the border for a fee but not always. The default passport photo should be 4 x 6 centimeters on a white background, however, some countries have changed over to requiring a red or blue background.
  • Valid Passport: Many countries ask that your passport be valid for at least six months after you apply, and that you have at least one empty page inside. Read more about how to get a passport.
  • Proof of Adequate Funds: Some countries list showing proof of adequate funds as a visa requirement, however, it is rarely leveraged. The idea is to stop people from “bumming” around in their country and becoming a burden. Often a valid credit card, bank statement, or enough cash on hand will satisfy this requirement.
  • Onward Ticket: Another archaic requirement that is only sometimes enforced: some places ask that you show proof of an onward ticket so that you will not become stuck in their country. Sometimes you can simply state that you intend to travel by bus or rail overland, or show adequate proof of funds to get around this requirement.

Do I need a Visa?

Visa requirements vary from country to country and also take into account your country of origin. What's worse, sometimes visa requirements change regularly based on the diplomatic relationship between your home country and your planned destination.

When countries are friendly toward each other, many times the need for a visa will be waved or offered as a "visa on arrival" which you can obtain once you arrive at the airport. Some stricter countries (i.e., Vietnam, China, and East Timor) require that you apply for a visa outside of the country. If you arrive without a visa, you will not be allowed to leave the airport and will be put on the next flight out!

Caution: Although you'll find lots of information out there about how to get a visa for countries in Asia, the requirements can change -- literally overnight -- and make third-party websites suddenly out of date. A safer bet is to take either the country's consulate website as the final word. You can also check the US Department of State's consulate website.

Another option is to call the US embassy located in your planned destination to confirm any new visa requirements.

Visa Requirements for Popular Destinations in Asia

Use these resources to find information about how to get a visa:

Visa Processing Scams

Near many borders in Southeast Asia, such as the crossing between Thailand and Laos, sneaky entrepreneurs have set up fake visa offices or visa processing centers for tourists. They charge a fee to complete your application -- something that you could have done yourself for free at the border! If your bus drops you at one of these visa centers, just decline and proceed on to the border to take care of the paperwork yourself.

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