So you’re headed on that dream vacation. All packed? Passport, toothbrush, change of underwear? Check, check and you betcha. How about a visa? And we’re not talking credit card, but that piece of paper stuck into your passport that gives you entrance into a foreign country. Never needed one before? You aren’t alone. If you do need a visa, don’t panic. A visa may sound mysterious and scary, with some mustachioed official demanding, “papers, please” at a rural checkpoint, but the truth is most visas aren’t that difficult to obtain. Some tips for visa success.
Tip 1. See if a visa is required to your destination. The U.S. State Department maintains a list of countries that do and don’t require visas. Or ask your travel agent. Among the most popular countries that require visas: Russia, China, India and Brazil.
Tip 2. If you do need a visa, bone up on all the requirements. You may need a copy of your round-trip airline ticket or extra passport-size photos. Russia requires an “invitation letter” – some sort of official government-sanctioned document showing your reason for visiting (tour groups and cruise lines provide one to clients), as well as pages of forms that make filling out your tax return seem easy in comparison. Expect to shell out anywhere from $15 to $170.
Tip 3. Determine if you can obtain a visa upon arrival. Many countries let you purchase one at the border. Note some countries don’t require a visa per se, but instead charge a “reciprocity tax” (identical to that paid by its citizens to enter the United States) for entry. For example, right now it costs $131 (credit cards accepted, thank you very much) to enter Argentina. But it’s absolutely, positively not a visa, as signs plastered across immigration control in the Buenos Aires airport remind you.
Tip 4. Need that visa before departure? Give yourself plenty of time if you plan to do it yourself. Check the country’s website for instructions and follow them to the letter. One goof on your application will see it denied. Unless you live in a city with that country’s consulate, you’ll need to apply by mail, sending documentation, payment and passport. Be sure to track your package to avoid it being lost or delayed.
Tip 5. Go the private route and use an expediter. Why? Expediters boast daily standing appointments at foreign consulates. They know where to go, what to bring, and how to cut through the red tape, plus not only proofread your application, but literally walk it to the proper authorities. Yes, you’ll pay a processing fee (starting at about $55 for non-rush service), but expediters are a proven value since each foreign embassy has its own ever-changing rules, hours, forms and accepted methods of payment (some take only cash, others only postal money orders). To find an expediter, check out the National Association of Passport and Visa Services, whose web site lists members. Many have toll-free phone numbers.