First and foremost, you need a passport to travel abroad, and best practice is to make sure you have more than six months’ validity left on your passport when you arrive at your destination. Many countries abide by a six-month validity requirement, so you may be denied entry if your expiration date is six months away or less. Some countries also require you to have special authorization – in the form of a visa – to enter.
There are many types of visas, but they typically fall into two main categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant. The latter is what you would need to travel to a country as a tourist (or if you were going for business, to work, or to study abroad). Visas are stamped or glued inside your passport, usually taking up a full page, and grant you permission to enter and travel within the stated country. Visa fees, application requirements, and processing times differ among countries, so you’ll want to research those details well in advance. The U.S. Department of State offers a comprehensive website where you can look up any country and learn about visa and passport validity requirements.
Your nationality is what other countries will use to determine whether you need a visa and, if so, what the fee will be. Therefore, you can’t assume that you’re able to travel to a particular country without a visa because your Irish friend could. Entry requirements for Americans can differ widely among countries, too. For example, an American traveling to China will need to obtain a visa prior to arrival at a cost of $140 (fee valid at the time of writing on June 5, 2016). However, an American traveling to Italy will not need a tourist visa if the trip duration is less than 90 days.
There are a variety of ways to obtain a visa, with available methods differing among countries, but you don’t always need to apply in-person at the country’s embassy or consulate. Australia, for example, offers American citizens the ability to purchase a visa online, called an Electronic Travel Authority, which becomes linked to your passport electronically. Cambodia also offers an electronic visa in addition to a visa on arrival (VOA). A VOA is exactly what it sounds like and, depending on the country, can be obtained at major border crossings, seaports, and airports.
If you plan to apply for a visa in-person or get a VOA, you should look up beforehand the preferred method of payment and what documents you may need to bring with you. Sometimes local currency is accepted if you’re applying for the visa abroad, though some countries are strict about only accepting crisp U.S. bills. If you have the choice of either, take a look at the exchange rate to determine which currency will give you the best deal. Common document requirements include two passport-sized photos, proof of onward travel (like a round-trip or exit flight confirmation), proof of adequate funds (like a bank statement), sponsorship from a tour agency, a vaccination card, and (of course) your passport. You certainly won’t need all of these documents for every application. Most applications will only require the photos, your passport, and some details about your trip, like which cities you are traveling to and the name of your first hotel. You’ll also want to make sure you have adequate space in your passport for the visa as well as entry and exit stamps.
If you are considering working or volunteering during your stay, check whether you are eligible to do so under the type of visa you plan to get. This is an important step, as doing something that is in conflict with what your visa allows could result in a fine or deportation.
There are a few final things to keep in mind when it comes to visas. First, you’ll want to be aware of the estimated processing time. If a consulate estimates that it could take up to three weeks to process your application, then don’t wait until the last minute to apply. Express service is sometimes offered at an additional fee, though. On a similar note, you don’t want to apply too early, as visas carry an expiration date. Their validity begins on the day they are issued and expires in accordance with the approved length of stay (for example, a six-month visa issued on January 1 will expire on June 30). If you overstay your welcome, you could be fined, deported, or both.
The last thing of note is whether to buy a single- or multiple-entry visa. The latter is particularly handy if you want to fly in and out of the same airport while having the ability to visit other countries during your trip. Multiple-entry visas do cost more, so only choose that option if you know you’ll utilize it.
There’s a lot to keep in mind when planning a trip abroad, and researching visa requirements well in advance will help make your travels smooth and, hopefully, stress-free.