How to Get a Travel Visa, and Where You Need One

By Jamie Cattanach · April 22, 2023 · 7 minute read

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How to Get a Travel Visa, and Where You Need One

Sometimes, travel involves more paperwork than just your passport and boarding pass. Travel visas are documents that grant you the privilege to travel to a given country. Depending on where you’re coming from, where you’re headed, and why, you may or may not need a visa to get there — but it’s important to find out whether you do as part of your travel planning.

If you need a visa, you’ll have to apply for one with the country you’re planning to visit. What’s more, the application will likely come with a fee.

To help you figure out the wide world of visa requirements, read on, and learn:

•   What the different types of travel visas are

•   Which travel destinations require a visa

•   How to get a visa

•   How long it takes to get a visa

Types of Travel Visas

While there are dozens of visas available for different purposes, they can be broken down into four categories: tourist, immigrant, student, and work.

•   Tourist visas are for travelers visiting a country for a short time. This is most likely what you’re looking for if you’re planning a vacation. Some countries don’t require United States citizens to apply for this type of visa ahead of time, but there may still be restrictions that apply to your travel.

For example, as long as you have a valid U.S. Passport, you can travel to most parts of Europe without applying for a visa beforehand. But you can only stay within the borders of the Schengen Zone for 90 out of 180 consecutive days. The passport stamp you receive on arrival is your visa. (The Schengen Zone encompasses most of the EU countries, some Scandinavian ones, and a few others.)

•   Immigrant visas are for people who are hoping to establish permanent residence in their destination country. Applying for this type of visa can be a lengthy, multi-step process, and getting a visa doesn’t guarantee you’ll be granted citizenship. Still, it’s an important first step toward emigrating to a different country.

•   Student visas are for those studying in a foreign country. To apply for one, you’ll need to prove that you’re enrolled in a legitimate, qualified school in the destination country.

•   Work visas allow their holders to accept employment in a country outside of their citizenship. These visas are usually temporary but can be renewed if the employment continues.

Many visas can be applied for online; these are known as e-visas. Increasingly, many countries are moving toward online visa applications. Exceptions are made for those who can’t apply online due to a disability or other extenuating circumstance.

Recommended: Guide to Saving Money on Hotels

How to Apply for a Travel Visa

If you are planning a trip and realize you need a travel visa, here’s how to spring into action. You’ll want to apply for it with your destination country’s government travel agency. During the application process, you’ll be asked to provide basic identifying information and, if applying online, you may be asked to upload a photo of your passport. The U.S. Department of State is a great resource for up-to-date information on which countries require a visa and how to apply for them.

Seems simple, right? It is, but with a couple important caveats when contemplating how to get a visa.

•   Having a valid passport isn’t always enough to enable travel. Many countries require your passport to have at least six months left before the expiration date at the time of your trip.

•   Applying for a passport in the first place can be a somewhat lengthy process; it may take as long as 11 weeks to get your passport in the mail after you apply. Even expedited processing, which comes with an additional fee, starts at five weeks of lead time. All of which is to say, make sure you have your passport ducks in a row well before you’re getting ready to actually apply for your visa.

Which Countries Require a Visa for U.S. Citizens?

Visa requirements change regularly. A case in point: The United Kingdom, which has long allowed U.S. citizens to travel without a visa, will soon require visitors to go through an online application system.

For the most up-to-date information — and before you lock in flights for a family vacation — check with the U.S. Department of State or your destination country’s travel agency to make sure you have everything set up for success before you head to the airport. At that time, you can also find out how long it will take to receive your visa. For e-visas, it may take just a couple of days.

That said, here are a few popular travel destinations that do require visas for U.S. travelers, along with notes to help you plan.

Country Application Process Fee Duration of Visit
Australia Apply online with the Australian Department of Home Affairs AUD20 processing fee Up to 3 months at a time over 12 months
China China requires U.S. citizens to apply for a visa ahead of travel. Regular processing takes 4 days, and express service takes 3. You must have at least 6 months of validity on your passport and may need to meet other requirements, such as providing proof of round-trip air travel. $140 Single, double, and multi-entry visas are available over the course of 6 months, and 12 months or more
India You can apply for a visa online; processing may take 5 business days or longer $25-$80, depending on visa duration Not more than 180 days of any calendar year
Kenya E-visa required, along with proof of yellow fever vaccination $51 Visa is valid for three months from the date of issue and may be extended for 90 days
Russia The U.S. Embassy calls Russia’s visa program “restrictive and complicated,” and it can take up to 20 days to get an exit visa if your visa expires during your visit. Still, it’s possible to apply for a visa ahead of time if you have your heart set on a visit, though the process will take research, time investment, and several steps. $160 90 days in any 180-day period
United Kingdom As mentioned above, the U.K. will soon require an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) of U.S. travelers. This is different from, but similar to, a visa. Processing will take a few days, but the application only takes a few minutes. Free 180 days
Vietnam You must apply for an e-visa online before arrival. Urgent processing is available, but normally processing takes 2 business days. $17-$65 depending on visa duration One-month single and multiple entry, and 3-month single and multiple entry visas available

Visa-Free Places for U.S. Passport Holders

To repeat the caveat again: The best way to know for sure if a visa is required is to research your specific destination ahead of time. That said, here are some popular destinations that are currently visa-free for U.S. passport holders. Note: This list is not exhaustive, and time restrictions may still hold.

•   American Samoa

•   Antigua and Barbuda

•   Argentina

•   Aruba

•   Belize

•   Bermuda

•   Brazil

•   Botswana

•   Canada

•   Chile

•   Colombia

•   Costa Rica

•   Curacao

•   Ecuador

•   Europe: Much of Europe allows visa-free entry for up to 90 days

•   Dominican Republic

•   Haiti

•   Honduras

•   Jamaica

•   Japan

•   Mexico

•   Morocco

•   Namibia

•   Nicaragua

•   Panama

•   Peru

•   Puerto Rico

•   Philippines

•   Scandinavia: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway don’t require visas for stays of 90 days or less

•   Singapore

•   Senegal

•   South Africa

•   Thailand

•   Trinidad and Tobago.

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Tips to Help Your Travel Plans Run Smoothly

Making sure you have the visa you need is only one part of travel planning. While you’re getting organized, here are a few more things to think about:

•   See if your furbaby needs a visa. Those traveling with pets may need to bring certain documentation in order to get their crate past customs. Otherwise, you might be unpleasantly surprised by a lengthy quarantine requirement.

•   Make sure your money is ready to travel, too. For international travel, it’s pretty key to have a travel credit card or cash back rewards credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

•   Get rewarded for air travel. If you usually fly with a specific airline, applying for an airline credit card could help you stack miles — and fly further for less.

•   Find ways to save. No matter how you slice it, international travel is expensive. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to save on everything from lodging to rental cars — so you don’t eat through your travel fund all in one go.

The Takeaway

U.S. nationals are lucky to have a long list of countries that don’t require a visa for them to visit. However, some countries do (including popular destinations), so it’s important to research requirements. Find out if you need a visa for your trip well before your travel dates so you don’t run into unexpected delays.

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