The 4 Basic Types of Travel Visas – Everything You Need To Know

You’ve likely heard of a travel visa before, but if you’re like most people, the phrase either overwhelmed or confused you! Who wants to think about government requirements when planning a well-deserved vacation anyway?

Then again, perhaps you haven’t heard it referred to as a “travel visa,” because you’ve heard about one of the two main overall types of visas, or one of the four sub-types.

We know this all sounds baffling, but it does not have to be!

In this series of articles, we’ll help you learn everything you need to know about travel visa requirements and getting them sorted out for your upcoming trips!

A Series on Passport Visas: What ARE Visas Anyway? Do I Need a Visa?
Once you have obtained your very first passport (or simply renewed an old one), you need to first understand “how it all works” when talking about traveling.

As much as we would like the world to be free, most of us still have to ask permission to travel around and visit countries other than our own. This idea will probably be around for a while, so it is best to understand it now.

Unfortunately, when we talk about the concept known as “visas,” we don’t mean our favorite credit card processing kind…this is the travel visa!

Whether you are a citizen of the U.S. or any other country, visas are universal. However, the requirements do vary by country, and since each visa represents a relationship between countries, they are unique to each case.

Your Visa Status Determines Your Ability to Travel
Because this is such an important part of travel that many people find hard to understand or annoying to deal with, we decided to do a series of posts on the visa itself.

Knowing the requirements is critical, since you will not be able to travel without the proper visa status.

We will first explain the general aspects and different types of visas in this article, and then describe each part of the different visas in upcoming articles until we have covered everything!

Equipped with this knowledge, you’ll be fully prepared for your trip and have all the information you need. This will ensure that you can continue using your credit cards to earn points, and begin deciding where you want to redeem them for travel next!

Make sure to research travel visas when planning your next trip; it may save you lots of heartache and money!

Travel Visa Article Series:
Part 1: The 4 Basic Types of Travel Visas: Everything You Need To Know (this article)
Part 2: Tourist Visas TO other countries FROM the U.S. (general info)
Part 2a: Tourist Visas to [Specific Country] FROM the U.S.
Part 3: Tourist Visas FROM other countries TO the U.S.
Part 4: U.S. Green Cards, Immigration, and How to Get Your Fiance or Spouse into the Country
Part 5: Student Visas and Studying Abroad
Part 6: Working Abroad and Visa Requirements To/From the USA
What are The Different Types of Visas That Exist?
As you have seen, the visa is a travel “document” required to get both into and out of a country. These days, you simply get your passport stamped with a visa rather than getting a physical document, but sometimes you will see both.

All visas go hand in hand with your passport; you can think of your passport as your “visa holder.”

There are two over-arching categories of visas that apply to any country:

Non-immigrant visas (meaning you do not become a citizen of that country)
Immigrant visas (you do become a citizen of that country)
The 4 Types of Travel Visa
However, these two overall categories can be best discussed as four main sub-types of visa:

Visa Type Description
Type #1: Tourist visa (pleasure travel visas)
Type #2: Immigration and naturalization visas (including by marriage)
Type #3: Student visas (for studying abroad)
Type #4: Business or work visas (for working, which includes both non-immigrant and immigrant types)
These four sub-types apply to every country in the world, though the requirements (or lack thereof) can vary widely, especially depending on which country you’re coming from.

Remember: Your travel may require pre-planning and approval from another government, so before you go booking any crazy trips, and after you’ve gotten your first passport (or gotten your old one renewed), you need to review the visa information for your destination!

This usually only takes a few minutes, but it can save you a lifetime of stress when you get closer to your trip.

In the U.S., a few examples of countries requiring a pre-approved visa include India, China, Brazil, most African countries, and Russia.

There are lots of options, but you’ll likely find a tourist visa the easiest to obtain unless you’d like to stay somewhere for an extended period of time.

An immigration visa is the hardest to get, and most people will be unable to obtain this type of visa during their lifetime.

Type #1 – Tourist Visa Requirements: The Main Concern of Points Travelers
First, we’ll start with the tourist visa (also known as a visitor visa). This is probably the most important type for readers here on, because it’s the visa that allows us to use all those awesome points we’ve obtained!

When talking about travel visas, it’s important to first understand where you are coming from, what your citizenship status is (which country you have your passport from), and where you plan on going.

For the majority of our readers, the place you’re coming from and citizenship status will both be the U.S., but where you are going can obviously vary widely.

However, some of you may be coming from one country and traveling to another while holding citizenship in a third!

In this case, you must be careful to check travel requirements for your specific situation; otherwise, you could end up finding the wrong information and being unable to travel.

Note: A tourist visa is a non-immigrant visa.

Tourist Visas FROM the United Statues
The good news for most of you is this: when traveling from the U.S., you will not need to do any up-front work to visit 174 different countries of the world.

You should be pumping your fist in the air (if you’re the type), because there are only 196 total countries in the world!

(Note that this count excludes the Cook Islands, Niue, and other non-UN recognized countries.)

However, when an American can travel to over 88% of the world without asking permission, you’re allowed to be pretty happy!

Simply book travel to the desired country and show up on their doorstep (also known as Customs and Border Protection). They’ll probably ask you a few questions about your visit, and then simply stamp your visa into your passport book!

Pretty easy, right?

Important Caveat on Visa Requirements
In addition, some of the countries included in that 174 do require an on-site visa application. This means that once you land, you will speak with a border agent who will process a visa on-site.

For these places, it may not be as smooth and easy as visiting Canada, the Bahamas, or most European countries, where U.S. citizens can quickly walk through the customs line and obtain their stamp.

If you’re the efficient type, even this relatively simple process that can go more quickly if your destination country participates in the Global Entry Program!

Tourist Visas TO the United States
Unfortunately, this category isn’t quite as simple. While we do have pretty good reciprocal agreements with many countries, citizens from some countries cannot simply travel to the U.S. without prior permission.

To travel to the U.S., visitors need to apply and be approved by the U.S. Department of State. Visa requirements differ per country.

You Can Complete Your Visa Application Online
Many can utilize the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, in order to complete their visa application online.

According to the ESTA website, there are currently 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows people from another country to visit the U.S. without a pre-authorized visa.

Type #2 – Immigration Visa Requirements: Obtaining Permanent Residence in the U.S.
An immigration visa is one that authorizes another person to permanently reside in a country. This is closely related to the naturalization and citizenship process, though immigration does not necessarily suggest citizenship.

If you’ve heard someone mention the term “Green Card,” they were actually talking about the immigration type of visa. Green Cards do not, however, simply grant citizenship.

What a Green Card will do is allow the holder to both live and work in the United States, as this card is the path to obtaining a citizenship.

The citizenship process, also known as naturalization, is the final step in becoming a full citizen of the U.S. Green Card holders must wait five years before applying for citizenship.

Full rights to all laws (including being subject to them) are granted upon naturalization, which allows the bearer to travel as a U.S. citizen would to all other various countries.

There are multiple paths to getting an immigrant visa, and seven different ways in which to obtain it:

Through family
Through employment
Through investment
Through the diversity lottery
Through refugee or asylum status
Through “The Registry”
Through the director of the CIA

Type #3 – Student Visa Requirements: Get Your Education Abroad
The “Study Abroad” visa! If only we all were able to do this. A student visa is obtained when you are visiting a country for the purpose of an educational experience.

While many would agree that all travel, regardless of reason, ends up being an educational experience, the travel here refers to trips in which you will be attending classes or studying particular subjects.

These visas apply to exchange students of just a few weeks, or those staying a year or more. Requirements vary per visa and per country…as per usual!

Note: A student visa is also a non-immigrant visa.

U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad
For U.S. citizens wanting to study elsewhere, you have lots of options! While there is not a full list put together, you will likely have the best luck finding a place to study abroad by researching through a university. is a great resource to help you in this regard.

Your ability to study abroad will be limited to the laws of the country you are trying to study in. Note that almost 60% of Americans who study abroad do so in Europe, though Asia and other countries are starting to become more popular.

Each year, there are over 300,000 students who study abroad from the U.S. (approximately 1.5% of students). These figures contrast starkly with a country like Germany, where over 50% of their students study abroad.

Foreign Citizens Studying in the U.S.
Any foreign national studying in the U.S. will need a U.S. Student Visa, which will fall under the letters F and M.

Also included in this category are visas for academics and education professionals going abroad for particular work studies or trips.

These types of visas fall under the letter J, which might also be considered a work visa.

Almost 1,000,000 students from abroad studied in the U.S. in the 2014-2015 school year.

Type #4 – Work Visa Requirements: Do Your Business Abroad
The fourth and final type of visa is the strictest and most difficult to obtain in any country: the work visa.

This is for a very simple reason: governments want economic activity in their country to be driven by their own citizens.

Overall, the U.S. is particularly stern on these requirements. Many different types of work visas exist, and they’re all given a not-very-aptly-named letter:

Each country wants to ensure that their own citizens have priority for the jobs available in that country. However, if you have your own business, it could possibly be easier to obtain one of these coveted visas.

For U.S. citizens looking to work abroad, you’ll need to research each location’s requirements before you go.

There will be more details on work visas in our upcoming piece. Until then, you can check out more work visa requirements on the U.S. State Department website.

Here, you’ll find information for foreign nationals trying to get into America as well as Americans going abroad.

Note: Work visas can be either immigrant or non-immigrant in nature.

Change or Adjustment of Status: Going from One Visa to Another
It is possible that your status changes while you’re in the country, and you may need to update your visa. This can also be a way to extend your stay in the country if you will be required to leave soon.

Let’s say you’re on a temporary work visa, but then decide you want to stay longer. You would likely have to apply for a non-immigrant work visa to allow you to stay in the country for a bit more time.

Alternatively, you could be working already, but then begin dating someone you are going to marry. In this case, you’d get your status changed to a fiance or spouse visa.

Perhaps you’re a student studying abroad who is offered an excellent opportunity to work because of your special skills.

You could then switch to a work visa, which would allow you to work and earn money while still continuing to study if desired. On a student visa alone, you aren’t allowed to work unless your job is on the campus at which you are studying.

When Do I Need to Worry About Getting a Visa?
Unless you are familiar with the visa requirements of the country you’re planning to visit, you should always do a quick search on whether or not a visa is required. This is much easier in the age of the internet, and usually takes no more than five minutes of research.

Here’s a great site that covers every country’s visa requirements in one list (both business and personal, but does not cover study abroad for student visas (which require a special approval). However, we have noticed that in a few cases this site is slightly out of date.

In general, the easiest countries for U.S. citizens to visit include Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Caribbean countries (excluding Cuba), and most European countries.

Asia is a mixed bag, with some countries requiring prior authorization (such as India and Russia), some requiring an on-site application (such as Cambodia), and others allowing a generous and easy entry (such as Japan).

Africa, the Middle East, and South America make up the majority of locations that require U.S. citizens to obtain prior authorization on a visa.

Use the above information as a rule of thumb, and be sure to check specifics ahead of time. If you’re new to traveling, the easiest places to start are Canada, Mexico, and Europe due to their lax visitor agreements and low, competitive prices on flights.

Of course, some of you can even drive to Canada and Mexico on a single tank of gas! Just be sure to remember your passport! You’ll still need it when crossing the border, unless you have an Enhanced Drivers License (EDL) or Passport Card, which acts as a visa itself.

10 Top Countries That Require Visas From the U.S.
Here is a list of very popular destinations that require pre-approval for travel from the U.S.:

Australia (using Electronic Travel Authority)
Saudi Arabia
There are more countries not listed here, but the listed ones are popular travel spots! In the upcoming series, we will release guides to getting visas for these specific countries.

Other Special Notes: Passport Validity and Transit Visas
There is a caveat to the “you don’t need a visa to travel to…” rule. Regardless of pre-authorized visa requirements, most countries require you to have at least six months of validity left on your passport before entering the country.

Though this may seem random, the rule exists to ensure you don’t get stuck in a country with an expired passport, which could end up a much, much worse situation than you ever want to deal with!

So, be sure to keep your passport validity up to date! Check out our guide to renewing your passport for more info.

Additionally, while many countries require a visa be obtained prior to landing, some of these countries have special exceptions for short, transiting trips.

For instance, China now allows you to transit through for 72 hours as long as you have met certain requirements. You can look up these for any country by searching “[destination] transit visa rules” on Google for more info.

Usually, these rules depend on where you are traveling, so contacting the U.S. embassy at your destination is the best choice.

Visa Centers and Third Party Visa Services
Even once you know the process, getting your visa can be stressful. If you’re the type who just doesn’t want to think about it, you can hire a business that specializes in this type of thing.

Many visa application and expediting companies exist to help you secure your visa before you travel. They can also help answer any questions, and assist with preparing anything you’ll need throughout the process.

Uncertain if you can work while you’re in the other country? Will you be able to take some classes? How long can you stay?

If you don’t know the answers and don’t want to research, professional visa services can help make your trip a little more peaceful.

Visa Application Fees: How Much and How to Apply
As we discussed in an above section, you should try to apply for your visa online first since most places allow this. Simply do a Google search for “[destination] visa requirements for Americans” and you’ll likely find something.

Typically, these requirements and applications are posted on the government websites of the target vacation (or other) spots.

For any country in which the U.S. doesn’t have a direct agreement, you will have to pay visa fees. This includes on-site visas and other pre-approved visa countries.

Fees can range anywhere from $20-$200 or more, and it depends on the length of the visa you purchase.

Do your research and determine what the best value is for you so you don’t pay too much in visa fees!

Visa Conclusions: Do Your Research or Be Turned Away
There is much more to say about visas, which you will learn as this series continues. For now, be sure to do your research and get authorized beforehand if necessary.

Which type of visa do you need? Probably one of the four main types: tourist, immigration, student, or work.

U.S. citizens can visit 174 countries without a pre-approved visa. Each of these is good for a different length of stay, although 90 days is one of the most common lengths.

Some places like India require a pre-approved visa that can take months to process, so start early!

What happens if you don’t get your pre-authorization? Well, if the airline doesn’t catch it, then you will simply be stopped while going through customs in the country you are visiting.

You will not be allowed to enter, and instead will be stuck in customs to catch the next flight back out of that country.

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