Travel entry visas
An entry visa is what lets you into a foreign country. Some are so automatic you barely realize you got one; others require more work and advance planning
First things first: A travel visa is not a credit card! A travel visa, or entry visa, is an official stamp or piece of paper granting a foreign national the right to enter a country.
(It comes from the French, visée, because back in the day it meant that an official had "looked" over your travel and identification documents—precursors to passports).
For many popular tourist destinations, this is a quick and painless process. They stamp your passport upon arrival, and you are free to stay for 30 or 90 days as a tourist. Sometimes this is considered a visa. Sometimes this is considered to be "visa-free" entry. Either way, you don't have to do anything.
A few countries require you to pay a token processing fee ($15 –$35) upon arrival. For some—mostly in South America—the fee is a bit more than a token and can range up to $140 (the box below explains why).Other requirements
In addition to a passport and possibly an entry visa, some countries may ask for the following:
• A local address in the country (just have the name/location of your first hotel ready)
• An ongoing ticket (proof you're going to leave the country)
• Proof that you have money (credit cards and an ATM card should do)
A handful of countries require you to apply for, and pay for, a travel visa in advance of visiting. For the most part, this only applies to the more exotic places (say, Africa or the Middle East; perhaps the most popular tourist destination in this category is India—though in 2011 the new government in Egypt flirted with tightening entry requirements) or authoritarian regimes (think: China, though not Hong Kong)—but there are a few on the list you might not expect, like Brazil. The fees for this also tend to fall into that $140 camp.
The excellent State Department website travel.state.gov has all the details. Here are the highlights:
Travel visas for visiting Europe
A valid passport is the only documentation an American needs to visit any country in Western Europe. Your passport will be stamped wherever you happen to enter Europe with a temporary tourist visa that's good for 90 days of travel within the E.U.
If you plan to stay longer in one country, contact that country's consulate in the United States before you leave to get a specific visa, or any U.S. consulate once you are abroad. (Students should apply in advance for a student visa; study abroad programs usually make this process easy.)
That said, in practice they usually don’t care if tourists spend five, six, seven months.
I've routinely gone over for more than 90 days (on one memorable occasion, for about 18 months) and no one ever questioned me about it. Yes, technically that means I've been an illegal immigrant in Europe many times over, but, well, there you go. (In my defense, on that 18-month stint we actually did apply to the country in question for our long-term visa permit to stay in country; that paperwork finally came through a few weeks before we returned to the States.)
Travel visas for countries outside of Europe
For visiting Americans, in many countries outside of Europe it works just like described above for Europe: you get your passport stamped with a visa upon arrival at the airport or border crossing, and it's good for 90 days (some limit it to 30 days; there are other stay lengths, but those are the two most popular).
If you get to day 29 and find you are still loving, say, Thailand, just nip across the border into a neighboring country for 24 hours then return. The new stamp on your passport is good for another 30 days. (In fact, travel agencies in Thailand and other popular countries advertise cheap "visa trip" packages just for this purpose.)
Why do I have to pay $140 for a visa?
Blame Uncle Sam. The seemingly usurious charge of $130–$140 to Americans wishing to visit some countries—notably South American ones, like Chile, Brazil, Bolivia—is actually a "reciprocity fee." It is these countries' way of responding indignantly to the fact that the U.S. charges the same amount to their citizens for a visa to come visit America. (Actually, they pay the $140 just to process the paperwork and conduct an arguably humiliating entrance interview at a local U.S. embassy; there's no guarantee that the would-be tourists will actually get to come here). These high fees are a kind of official protest—and, given our arrogant attitude regarding our own incoming visa process, an understandable one.
Sometimes this is a token amount—$15 for Egypt, $20 for Turkey, $35 for Cambodia—but sometimes it is on the order of $140 (see the box to the right for why).
Some of these visas require you to submit one or two identical passport-size photos (2" X 2"), which you can have taken at any photo shop or most major chain drug stores. (You cannot use the strip photos from one of those photo vending machines.) Just get a few extras and keep them with you as you travel.
Some countries (Brazil, India, China—though not Hong Kong) require you to apply for your visa before arriving. You can usually do so at their local consulates in your home country, by mail, or using a paid service like RushMyPassport.com.Exit fees
Some countries charge an exit fee when you fly out. This can range from $20 to $100—and is often cash-only. Be prepared by reading up on the requirements at travel.state.gov before leaving home.
Luckily, such paid visas are usually valid for three or five years (or the life of the passport, whichever comes first; sadly, the passport with my Brazil visa expired after a year, so if I want to go again I'll have to get another one).
US State Department - This Web site is the best thing the government has ever done for travelers. You can download passport applications, research potential visa requirements, read consular fact sheets and travel warnings on the countries you wish to visit, and find out all about the services available to US citizens abroad. Great set of links to other governmental and non-governmental travel sites, too.
Embassy World - A nifty little Web site that links you to every embassy and consulate Web site out there, so an Aussie can find not only the Australian consulate in Rome, Italy, but also Italy's consulate in Canberra so he can ring up about visa requirements.
U.S. Embassies - Direct links to individual US Embassy Web sites around the globe.
Council on International Educational Exchange - CIEE is the preeminent organization devoted to American students studying abroad (and their professors). Among other services, they issue the official International Student Identity Cards (ISIC) — the only student ID accepted everywhere as proof of student status (many museums and travel agents in Europe will not accept your home university ID).