Everything you needed to know about visas
So you have booked a trip abroad and are now wondering if you need a visa or not. We’ve put together some of the most frequently asked questions about visas to get you started.
If there is anything we’ve left out or you’d like us to include in the next blog post, let us know. We’re also interested to hear from anyone who has had good experiences of getting visas and those visas you would rather forget.
The basics – what is a visa to travel?
A travel visa is a sticker, or slip of paper issued to you to permit you to enter a country.
Some countries permit visitors to obtain these on arrival, others before travel.
Requirements will vary between nationalities; so for example, a British passport holderheading to Morocco will not require a visa for a short stay, whereas their Chinese friend carrying a Chinese passport will require a visa before travel together with a letter of introduction.
Where can I find out if I need a visa?
There are a few sources of information.
Projectvisa is a fairly good information website which simply states requirements and costs.
The Embassy of the country you are visiting will have a visa department. The visa department can also be called the consulate, consulate general, consular department or visa section amongst others. The consulate may be in a different building or city to the Embassy. The consulate is a starting point for advice regarding visas.
- Some consulates outsource their visas to other agencies so do not panic if the website looks different to the Embassy website.
- When searching online check you are looking at the consulate in your country.
- Different consulates can occasionally have different advice.
- If visiting in person, call first for opening hours as they are usually open for only a few hours a day, usually in the mornings. At the time of writing, for example, the Moroccan consulate is only open between 9 and 10am.
- Embassies and their consulates will also follow their own countries national holidays so may be closed when you least expect.
When to apply for a visa?
Do not apply too early. The consulate will either process it straight away so it will expire before you travel or it will sit in the pile at for months increasing its chances of getting lost.
How much do visas cost?
Visas costs vary, the average is about £50 (2013). India visas are approx. £90. Visa agency fees can vary too but you can safely add on an extra £50 agency processing fee to the cost of the visa.
Before contacting a consulate
All visas are offered on a discretionary basis. There is no legal requirement for any country to offer one even if you have complied with their procedures, completed the right forms and paid. So try to keep all communication friendly and polite until your passport and visa is in your hand. We hear from at least one traveller a year whose visa was rejected following a heated discussion with visa officers.
Double check consulate advice before applying
Some countries change their requirements, application process and visa fees regularly so it is important to check their website and make a call before applying, especially if visiting in person.
If the country you are visiting is off the beaten tourist trail, advice can change depending on the person you speak to at the Embassy! Make a couple of calls and ask all the questions you need until you are happy and the advice appears to be consistent.
What you need to know before applying:
- What paperwork do they require? (bank statements, copy of flight itinerary, photos, letter of introduction from the receiving organisation/host family or sending organisation?)
- Do you need to complete an online form first then apply? Or only apply by post?
- Do you need to go in person?
- What is the Embassy’s visa section opening hours?
- What is the cost and method of payment?
- How long does it take to process by post/in person?
- Does the visa start on the date of issue or arrival date? Most start on date of issue, not arrival but it’s worth checking.
Embassies and their consulates may not be businesses but still need to justify their role in a world of budget cuts and decreasing public expenditure. This means they may encourage you to apply for a visa before travel even if it is quite usual to obtain a visa on arrival.
Volunteers arrive smoothly at their destination.
Using a visa agency service
Visahq is a popular agency used by both tourist and business travellers although there are many others.
It is in the interests of a visa agency to encourage travellers to use their services and obtain a visa in advance. Visa agencies are businesses and if a visa can be obtained on arrival, they will usually advise to use their services and get one before travel. For example, VisaHq does not state that a Kenya visa can be obtained on arrival.
Should I get a visa before travel if I can get one on arrival instead?
The main pros and cons:
A stress free flight knowing you have everything in order when you arrive.
Less queuing, less hassle and less worry at immigration on arrival.
Risk of passport being lost at Embassy or in the post.
Delays in visa processing can cause stress before travel.
What type of visa do I need for volunteering abroad?
It depends. Not the most straightforward answer but requirements vary between countries, the nationality of the visitor, your travel plans and even your personal preference.
Some countries will not allow a visitor on a tourist visa to volunteer. Volunteering is often classed as employment, even if unpaid. If the consulate official knows you will not be entering as a tourist when you apply as a tourist they may reject a tourist visa application. For a volunteer permit or employment visa you may be asked for a contract from the school or project you are going to and/or a letter from your sending organisation. Other required documents can include IDs, CVs and business or charity registration documents from the school or project you will be teaching at.
This can be impractical or impossible to obtain if you are going to be teaching in little more than a cattleshed at the back of someone’s house or are not sure if you will be volunteering at all. Afterall, many holidaymakers and backpackers may decide to take an organised tour to a poor school for the day,something which they had not planned on until they were at their destination.
Check with your volunteer-sending organisation on the different types of visas available and their recommendations for your travel plans.
How much do employment visas cost?
Employment visas can be the same cost as a tourist visa or higher. An employment visa to enter India for British passport holders at the time of writing is £285, although it does allow a longer stay. The Tanzanian Consulate advised that even for 2 hours of volunteering in Tanzania their volunteer permit would be required. This is currently $200 US Dollars in Tanzania or $400 US Dollars if obtained before travel.
Anyone spending a few weeks solid volunteering will want to consider doing everything by the book and have the correct visa. But for anyone on a budget, with little time to get a visa or those who will not be volunteering for more than a few days it can be a harder decision.
Again, check with your sending organisation for advice before making a decision.
My employment visa was rejected
If an employment visa is rejected, it is not recommended to re-apply using false information. Find out why your visa was rejected and try to assist the Embassy in any way you can to comply with their requirements. Sometimes they require the letter or form to be written in a particular style or addressed to the right official. From our experience this is quite common for Indian and Cameroonian visa applications.
- Reapplying using false information could mean you are blacklisted. Be sure from the start which visa you intend to apply for and that you have plenty of time to obtain further documents for an employment visa should your visa be rejected.
- For worriers, get the right visa, if you can be sure you can obtain the required documentation from your hosts abroad if needed and will still have time to obtain a second set of documentation, if the consulate require it.
- For those who are prepared to take a gamble or on a budget get advice from your sending organisation. Ask whether there have been any reported problems on visas and what you can do.
What will happen if I do not have the right visa?
On arrival, unless you tell the immigration officer, write something on your form, no one will know what your purpose of visit is unless you tell them.
After arrival, in most countries when an official stops to check your passport it is generally only to see that you have not overstayed your welcome. In Asia, traffic police often stop foreigners when riding mopeds without a helmet and that is when they they will check your passport.
Do officials ever visit volunteer projects?
Very occasionally officials may make an impromptu visit to a volunteer project to check paperwork is in order but this is extremely rare . This tends to happen only in the initial stages until the programme or project is established and the officials become familiar with the project and volunteer visitors.
Once established, respected and well known by the local community, visits are usually made only by the local police to see how things are going and if they can help in any way.
Volunteers arrive in Marrakesh.
What if I need to extend my visa?
Extend it before your stamp/visa runs out! Things can get sticky for over stayers as there seldom is a good excuse for not extending it when you know in advance. Contact the immigration authority in the country you are in, this will be in larger regional towns or the capital city. Some countries allow you (or at least turn a blind eye) to leave the country and return, entering on a new stamp.
In Thailand trips to the border are called ‘visa-runs’ and there are lots of agencies providing cheap trips just for your stamp. Although legal, land border officials can be a bit awkward on the return journey if they have worked a long shift and know you only left the country for a day to get round an expired visa.
Remember there are no guarantees when it comes to visas and requirements so do keep checking even after you have arrived.
What is a transit visa?
Some countries require a visa even if you are only changing planes and will not be leaving the airport. The USA now requires most visitors changing planes in the USA to obtain one.Esta is the website to apply through if you are changing planes in the USA.
What is the difference between a single entry and multiple entry visa?
If you are travelling to one country and will not be leaving and re-entering that country then a single entry visa is enough.
Worked example: If you travel to country 1, then leave to visit country 2 and then re-enter country 1 to fly home you will need a multiple entry visa for country 1 and a single entry for country 2.
How long do visas last for?
Every country is different. 30, 60, 90 days and 6 months are possible on tourist visas or countries which require no visa but give you a permitted length of stay.
I am applying for a visa before travel. What should I include?
Always follow the website advice of the consulate/Embassy of the country you are visiting.
- If applying by post, don’t forget to include your passport! It is an easy mistake to make. Visas are generally stamped into a page of the passport.
- Pay the extra special delivery for the envelope to the Embassy (in the UK the silver envelope, cost approx. £7) and include another one addressed to yourself inside for the return journey. It is worth paying the extra to ensure delivery. You do not want them to send it back second class post, get lost and then you will need to apply for a new passport.
- Include proof of your date of travel (copy of your flight itinerary)
- If the following is not required or clearly stated in their website, the following can still be useful additions if applying directly.
- A formal Dear Sir/Madam style brief letter stating your full name, passport number and expiry date and that you have sufficient funds and will only be visiting between date X and Y and bullet pointing any additional documents and the special delivery envelopes you are enclosing.
- Additional items you may want to consider including: copy of bank statement showing funds in account but only include if good and remember to black out any sensitive information.
I have received my passport back and there’s no visa
Don’t panic. Go through every page of your passport. It is not uncommon for the stamp to be at the back.
Contact the Embassy in the morning for advice.
If there has been a mistake on their side and you have a couple of days before travel and you can get to the Embassy, it might still be possible to arrange a visa. They are generally pretty good if it was their mistake and you are travelling in a couple of days. Embassies are generally closed at the weekend.
It is also worth calling your airline to see if they will let you board without a visa. If they can put this in writing this may be helpful for you to show at check-in. Some airlines are fined for letting travellers board without the required visas.
If it is too late, contact your airline to change your flight to give you enough time to obtain a visa.
Contact your volunteer organisation or tour operator for advice on changing dates. Original Volunteers does not charge admin fees for changing dates or volunteer programmes.
I have not received my passport back
Check the Embassy opening times and contact them for advice. If your passport is lost either at the Embassy on in transit you will need to report your passport missing and re-apply for a new one. It is always best to wait until the last minute to cancel a flight as changing dates will incur extra costs and it is sometimes possible to obtain a replacement passport (https://www.gov.uk/get-a-passport-urgently) quicker for a fee.
What do I need for a visa on arrival?
As a general rule I would take more than enough to cover you then you can arrive stress free. Immigration officials can be one extreme or the other, from stamping a date of arrival in your passport and waving you through impatiently, to questions in a side room and going through your luggage.
What happens if you overstay your visa?
Each country has its own penalty for overstaying but usually you will only encounter any problems at immigration when you leave the country. Most countries have a fine based on the number of days you overstayed. This can vary, as a very rough guide this can be between £5 and £20 a day up to a maximum limit. Country maximum fine limits vary, in Thailand the maximum limit is approximately £400. However, a word of caution, if an official spots you are considerably over your expiry date, you may be escorted to the airport or worse take to the local jail and have a pay a large sum to be deported. It is rare but can happen so if you have overstayed and not renewed your visa best to keep a low profile.
A tip, when approaching the immigration desk if you have overstayed, alert the official that you are aware that you have overstayed, need to pay and have your money ready in hand, a smile helps! This usually avoids any unwanted aggravation. Most countries I have visited have the fines displayed clearly and when I have pointed at the A4 sheet cellotaped to their little cabin smiling “is that the fine for overstaying, golly gosh, that’s lucky I have some dollars on me ready!” they are generally positively helpful.
Avoid over staying if you want to go back. Some countries black-list their over stayers, a colleague of mine was blacklisted by Australia when her flight was delayed at the last minute which took her over her visa by one day. This meant she could not get a visa to re-enter.
So for budget travellers and those not following everything by the book, more important than having the right visa, do not go past your expiry date!
Top tips for stress free visas on arrival (also known as VOA)
Take a pen
Often before landing, a landing/immigration card is handed to every passenger who is not a citizen of the country being visited so have a pen ready. If not handed out on the plane they can be picked up at immigration, there may be a box on the wall somewhere but there are rarely any pens! While you frantically try to find one in your bag or muster the courage to ask another passenger, everyone else will have gone through immigration and you’re the last one in the queue flustered and sweaty and worried about your pick up driver still being there. Take a pen! India landing card sample
Have an address ready for your landing card
No official is going to call the hotel or address so any address will be helpful.
Take an internationally recognised bank card
This shows you have access to money for your trip, even if they only see the card. VISA are the best.
Make the immigration official’s job easier – be ready
Smile, have passport ready in hand with the photo page or visa page open, the landing/immigration card completed and the required amount of money for the visa visible if required.
That concludes the first blog post on visas. If you have any advice or comments don’t hesitate to get in touch as this will make the next one even better!