A visa is an official document (or stamp endorsed in a passport) issued by a foreign nation that grants you permission to enter that country for a specified period of time. Usually the application process is pretty straightforward (provided you plan ahead with plenty of time to spare). But visas for some countries can involve a little more thought and preparation.
So, how do you know if you need a visa for your next trip and where to get one? Here’s our handy guide to the wonderful world of travel visas:
It’s every traveller’s personal responsibility to ensure they obtain a visa (if required) for the countries they’re planning to visit. Don’t rely on your travel agent, your airline, Google, Wikipedia or Uncle Fred for up-to-date visa information – do the research yourself, preferably by contacting the relevant foreign consulate or embassy website. Visa regulations can change very quickly, so make sure the information is current.
It’s every traveller’s personal responsibility to ensure they obtain a visa (if required) for the countries they’re planning to visit. Don’t rely on your travel agent, your airline, Google, Wikipedia or Uncle Fred for up-to-date visa information – do the research yourself, preferably by contacting the relevant foreign consulate or embassy website.
Most travel agents are happy to send your passport away to get a visa (usually by secure express courier). There are also commercial visa firms that provide a similar service but it’s just as easy to get any required visas yourself. General visa information can be obtained from official Australian government websites, but it’s wise to follow up this research with direct communication with the appropriate foreign embassy.
Visa requirements (and the amount of paperwork involved) vary greatly, depending on the country. You’ll be asked to fill in one or more forms (this can often be done online) asking for standard details like name, passport number, date of birth, intended travel dates, purpose of visit, etc. You may also be asked about your initial accommodation plans or be required to provide a contact address within the country. Some countries may require health (especially vaccination) records as well.
Most countries charge a visa fee, which must be paid at the time you submit your application. You’ll typically need passport-sized photos as part of the visa application process too. These have increasingly strict specifications, so always go to a professional that specialises in passport photos for these. It’s not a bad idea to carry a few spare passport-sized photos with you whenever you travel overseas – they can come in handy.
Some countries issue visas on arrival, either at a land border or at the airport. If you plan to take advantage of this option, make sure you have all the necessities with you – passport photos, visa fee in the local currency, itinerary, vaccination records or whatever they might need. In some cases, it may be more convenient to organise a visa from home rather than deal with the delays you might encounter with on-arrival visa applications.
A visa is not a guarantee
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about a travel visa is that it does not guarantee automatic entry to any country – it is subject to inspection by immigration authorities on arrival, who under normal circumstances will issue an entry permit immediately without any problems. However, overseas authorities can (and do) cancel visas for a number of reasons. If, for example, you claim you’re visiting the country for a holiday but your luggage contains resumes, letters of introduction to employers or other material suggesting you might be there to work illegally, they might deny entry and put you on the next available flight home. If you appear to be excessively inebriated or drug-affected, your visa could also be cancelled.
Overseas authorities can (and do) cancel visas for a number of reasons. If, for example, you claim you’re visiting the country for a holiday but your luggage contains resumes, letters of introduction to employers or other material suggesting you might be there to work illegally, they might deny entry and put you on the next available flight home. If you appear to be excessively inebriated or drug-affected, your visa could also be cancelled.
Arriving with a one-way ticket can cause problems in some countries, as can an inability to show proof of sufficient funds to last you for the duration of your stay. Being disrespectful to immigration authorities is, of course, always a bad idea. Carrying illegal items in your luggage (weapons, pornography or even literature that insults that country’s leader) can also result in visa denial (and sometimes fines or imprisonment).
Doing the right thing as a traveller also applies when you’re exiting a country. The penalties for overstaying a visa vary greatly depending on the visa type and how long you’ve overextended your welcome, but typical penalties involve banning you from entering that country again for a specified number of years – or even for life.
Make sure you’re very precise with your dates when applying for a visa, and that your entry stamp upon arrival matches your visa specifications. Arriving in a country with a ‘one month visa’ and flight times that require a stay of exactly 30 days won’t be much good to you if the airport official stamps your passport with a ‘4-week entry permit’. More than a few travellers have been caught out by differing interpretations of what constitutes ‘one month’, so always give yourself plenty of leeway in your travel schedule so there’s no chance of any ambiguity.
Types of visas
Most of us are familiar with the standard tourist (holiday-maker) visa, but there are several other types worth knowing about:
Working holiday visas
If you’re between the ages of 18 and 30 and like the idea of ranch work in Canada, an executive position in Ireland, working the ski resorts of Norway or doing a stint in an American summer camp, a working holiday visa could be your ticket to a grand adventure. Australia has working holiday agreements with a number of countries including Belgium, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Netherlands, South Korea, UK, USA and many more. Each country has its own stipulations as to the type of work allowed, necessity for sponsorship, legal and tax requirements, etc. Normal working holiday visas are for 12 months, with a few variations (Japan, UK and USA). Travel agencies that specialise in student travel are a great place to get more information about these types of opportunities – though you don’t need to be a student to qualify for a working holiday visa.
A transit visa lets you travel through a country for a very specific (and usually very short) period of time. It could be 3 hours or 3 days, depending on the circumstances and the nature of your itinerary. In the UK, you’ll also come across something called a DATV (Direct Airside Transit Visa), which applies if you’re changing flights but not going through Immigration Control, and you’re from outside the EAA (European Economic Area) or Switzerland. Transit visa rules are constantly changing, so ensure you have up-to-date information for your trip.
Visa for medical reasons
Medical visas are issued to persons travelling abroad to seek specific medical treatment. Medical tourism is a booming industry because of the disparity in international costs for certain treatments and procedures, with cosmetic surgery representing a substantial segment of the medical tourism market.
Business visas and work visas
These two types of visas sound similar, but they’re not. Generally, a business visa is provided for visitors conducting short-term business activities related to their current job – attending a conference, conducting client negotiations, undergoing training, etc. Work visas, on the other hand, are granted for longer term employment. The semantics can get confusing, with countries using their own terms (work permit, sponsorship authorisation, Green Card, etc.) to describe visa options. Some countries make life even more interesting by offering combination ‘business and pleasure’ visas.
Other types of travel visas
Marriage, student, journalist, diplomatic, pensioner and immigrant visas are just a few of the other varieties of visas issued for specific situations. Whichever type of visa you have, it will fall under one of 4 designated entry condition categories: single entry, double entry, multiple entry or re-entry (the latter permits you to depart the country temporarily without invalidating the visa). Keep in mind that the day you enter a country is counted as ‘one day’ – even if you arrive just before midnight.
Australia has working holiday agreements with a number of countries including Belgium, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Netherlands, South Korea, UK, USA and many more. Each country has its own stipulations as to the type of work allowed, necessity for sponsorship, legal and tax requirements, etc. Normal working holiday visas are for 12 months, with a few variations (Japan, UK and USA).
If you’re nearing the end of your stay and would like to remain longer in a particular country, you can often apply for an extension by visiting the nearest immigration office and submitting an application. Each nation has its own set of rules (and levels of strictness) about this, so the process can range from hassle-free to laboriously bureaucratic depending on where you are in the world; in some cases, repeated trips to the immigration office may be necessary.
In countries that observe the tradition of a noonday siesta, don’t expect any official offices to be open between 12 and 2pm (sometimes 3pm). Keep track of national holidays that might shut down immigration offices during your stay. Always bring your patience – official activities abroad can move at a much different pace than what you’re used to at home, so be prepared for long, slow moving queues in some overseas immigration centres.
Visa questions – the good, the bad and the mildly entertaining
The questions you might be asked when applying for a visa can vary from the mundane to the …um… different, so it helps to have a sense of humour. Surveys of international travellers have turned up some interesting experiences with visa questions (and answers):
One traveller reported filling out a Chinese visa form that, under the heading ‘Reason for Visit’, gave the option of ‘Visit’.
A Mexican visa application asked an applicant to ‘describe your beard’, providing the handy options of ‘clipped, bushy or scanty’ to choose from. Another traveller encountered a Mexican application with an amusing typo: instead of ‘please sign in the box’ it requested that she ‘please sing in the box’.
On India visa applications, more than one tourist has noted that when asked to fill in your chosen religion, you could not state ‘none’, but had to select ‘Other’ and then write in ‘none’.
Students entering a country may be asked to ‘name three things about…’ whatever subject they claim to be visiting the country to study, to test their knowledge and help determine of the visa request is legitimate. Overseas students entering the UK might also be asked if they have ever been involved (or suspected of involvement) in crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide.
In the UK, USA and elsewhere, questions about involvement in terrorism are common in this day and age. There may even be questions about whether you’ve ever been involved in human trafficking, torture, prostitution or ‘espionage activities’. One would like to hope they don’t also provide a box where you can tick ‘all of the above’!
If some of these visa questions seem a little strange, please remember that our own Immigration Department asks travellers entering Australia if they have ‘been to a farm in the past 6 weeks’, which, without understanding the context, might seem an unusual question to someone from Bhutan, Suriname or Belarus. It’s important to respect local cultures (including visa questions), and to never make jokes at airports or border crossings that might offend anyone.
Interesting visa questions are nothing compared to some of the answers provided by travellers on official visa forms around the world; here are some classic examples:
A traveller from Mali with skill in paddling pirogues applied for a residency permit for Italy because he wanted to become a professional gondolier in Venice after ‘seeing it on TV’.
A woman went for an interview while on holiday and subsequently applied for a UK work visa; she had apparently managed to secure employment as a ‘seasonal zombie’.
A French ‘foot model’ applied for US residency, stating that her feet were in ‘high demand’ in America.
A UK ‘dog food taster’ applied for a position (and relevant visa) in the US based on his ‘previous experience’.
A Peruvian man applied for a European work visa to seek employment as an alpaca shearer.
A traveller in the Philippines, apparently deciding honesty was the best policy, requested a visa to join his family in Australia because he was ‘on the run from authorities’.
Be a sensible traveller
Before you head overseas, check that your passport is valid for at least 6 months from your intended return date to Australia. It should also have at least two blank pages – there have actually been instances where people have been denied entry to a country simply because their passport was so full of stamps that there was no room for a new one!
It’s wise to register your contact information and travel plans with the local Australian embassy or consulate when you arrive, so you can easily be contacted in case of an emergency. Before leaving home, make photocopies of your passport photo page and any other vital documents and store them separately, so if the originals are lost or stolen you can obtain a replacement much more quickly.
Visit a travel doctor 6-8 weeks before departure to obtain health advice for the areas you’re visiting and any inoculations or medications you might need. Physicians with experience in travel medicine are an excellent source of advice on everything from safe food hygiene practices to the best ways to protect your body from disease-carrying insect pests.
Lost luggage, sudden illness, serious injury, theft, cancelled flights and other unexpected calamities can happen to any traveller, which is why appropriate travel insurance is an absolute must. Medical costs abroad can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Australian Government does not pay for any medical costs that you incur while overseas, nor do they pay for your evacuation back home or to any other country. The cost for a good travel insurance policy is a tiny price to pay when weighed against the massive financial burden you might face if a serious medical issue or other major expense crops up while you’re travelling.
Visit a travel doctor 6-8 weeks before departure to obtain health advice for the areas you’re visiting and any inoculations or medications you might need. Physicians with experience in travel medicine are an excellent source of advice on everything from safe food hygiene practices to the best ways to protect your body from disease-carrying insect pests. They also have access to the most up-to-date information on health issues in specific countries, so you know exactly what to expect. A travel doctor can provide an official written authorisation for any special medications you might be taking with you. The last thing you want is to be detained at an airport with unauthorised medications for which you have no prescription.
There are plenty of nifty products available for the modern traveller, from portable water purifiers and motion sickness remedies to peg-less clotheslines and waterproof map holders. It’s easy to forget to bring essential items with you, so make a list and check each item off as you pack. Leaving your reading glasses, plug adaptor, phone charger, medications, neck pillow, earplugs or similar items behind can make for an inconvenient trip. Fortunately, thanks to the availability of eBook readers, the old days of having to cart half a dozen huge paperbacks in your luggage are now long gone.
Decide on how you’re going to deal with the issue of money while you travel, whether it’s with credit or debit cards, traveller’s cheques, cash or a combination of these. Bear in mind that some overseas currencies are impossible to exchange once you leave the country, so spend it all before you leave.