How to get a visa
Travel and learn about new countries and cultures.
Foreign travel is always an exciting prospect but sometimes requires more preparation than anticipated. This is the case when you travel to a foreign country that requires a visa in addition to your passport. What's a visa? Why do you need one and where do you apply for a visa? This article will cover the basics and point you toward the specific measures you need to take to apply for a visa.
What is a Visa?
You have a passport, why do you need a visa? Your passport is really all about you. It lets another country know who you are and that you are who you say you are. To obtain a passport you have had to provide proof of your identity, residence and citizenship. Some countries will want to know more about you as a visitor. A visa grants permission for you to visit.
Who You Are
Visas require that you acknowledge why you are traveling. Are you visiting as a tourist? Are you doing business within the country? Have you come to study or to work? These answers determine the kind of visa you need, the length of your stay and your destinations.
Where You Are Going
To Americans accustomed to planning vacations on the basis of we'll rent a car and plan as we go along, this can seem a positively aggravating question. Countries requiring visas want a clear picture of your plans. This may be something governments require of all their citizens, or it may apply only to visitors.
How Long You Are Staying
Some countries for reasons of national security, civil unrest or physical danger, need to know if your visit is a single stay or part of a trip that involves your leaving and returning to their country.
Why the Questions?
The U.S. Department of State (USDS) maintains a highly informative site on foreign travel, including the most recent requirements for visas. As you look at their list of countries requiring visas, it becomes clearer why they require them. Some countries listed have been explicitly anti-American to the point that embassies or diplomatic missions have been withdrawn for safety reasons. Some countries, on the other hand, are relatively new to dealing with Western culture in all forms, including foreign visitors.
Where to Apply for a Visa
The U.S. Department of State lists foreign embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions, the cities in which they are located and sometimes addresses or telephone numbers. Before you apply, your host country's Web site (also on the USDS site) can tell you exactly what items you need to bring or supply by mail to obtain a visa. It may provide a downloadable application. If you live in a large city, you can probably take your materials in person. Be aware that if you decide to do this by mail, you may have to send your actual passport to have the visa stamped in. Use a traceable mail-process for safety.
Some host countries may wish to see your itinerary or proof of means of travel like copies of itineraries and tickets provide answers to show where you're headed and for how long. Some countries want pictures. Some want a letter of invitation from the company you are doing business with. Some require proof of inoculations, either in general or specifically if you are coming from a country currently having problems with a disease (yellow fever, for example). Some require that your passport will remain valid for a six-month-or-longer period following your visit. Online applications are clear and providing required materials is easy.
How to Pay
Most host countries prefer secured-payment in the form of a money order, certified check or company check. The Web site or a visa-assistance agency can tell you what forms of payment are accepted.
How Long the Process Takes
USDS and travel authorities recommend starting the visa process as much as three months before your visit and certainly no less than six weeks before. Countries requiring visas may have understaffed governmental agencies, possibly less-efficient than those in countries with long-established bureaucracies and political stability.
Travel agents can usually provide or guide you to reputable visa-assistance agencies. Visiting them online or calling can determine whether an agency is approved by your host country. Be prepared to pay administrative and shipping fees in addition to standard consular fees. Be aware that quick-shipping rates quoted are between you and the agency, and you should ask about the average length of time the consular-issuing process is likely to take.