Okay, pardon the simplicity of this guide, but considering that most Americans and EU citizens don’t have to apply for visas to enter some of the most traveled countries in the world, it’s not surprising to hear that there are some people who have never applied for a visa.
Applying for a Visa
First Things First: Make Sure You Need a Visa
This sounds obvious, but it’s a good starting point. Some countries require visas, while others don’t. Some allow for a visa on arrival (more on that later), while others require for you to apply before your trip. This is going to be the “standard” visa process we’ll walk through. To figure out if you need a visa, you can either look up your local consulate’s website for a list of countries that require visas for certain types of visits (ie tourism vs business), or check with websites like CIBT, which keep pretty current on which passports need visas).
Once you determine you need a visa, you’ll need to set up an appointment and get your documents together. Keep in mind that when you’re applying for a visa, the purpose is to prove to the consulate that your trip is for the purpose you are describing – whether it be tourism or business – and more importantly, that you intend to return to your home country at the end.
Prepare Your Application
1. Check Passport Validity and Pages
A lot of consulates require at least six months of validity from your expected date of arrival in the country (read: day 1 of your trip), so you’ll want to make sure that your passport isn’t expiring anytime soon. The next thing you’ll want to check is blank pages – you typically need two empty pages.
2. Find Out Where to Apply
This might sound like a no-brainer, but first thing’s first – look up the nearest consulate of the country you’re heading to. Depending on where you are, some consulates will only service residents of nearby states/cities/counties (if there is more than one consulate in your country), so you need to make sure you’re applying at the right one. Often, it’ll be the one physically closest to where you live, but in some areas like the northeast, two might be equidistant, so make sure you’re headed to the right one.
3. Figure Out When to Apply
Most consulates will only let you apply a certain number of days/months in advance of your travel date. The average is usually around 3 months in advance of your trip, but again – check the website.
4. How to Apply
Some consulates will allow you to apply via mail (you’ll have to provide return stamps too if you choose this option), while others will require you to come in person for an “interview”. We put the term in quotations because it’s not quite what it sounds like. It’s really a process of submitting your application and supporting documents, and in some cases, scanning your fingerprints into their system. They may ask some questions about your trip, but this typically is not a lengthy meeting that the term “interview” suggests. Even so, be prepared to provide details about your trip, including where you’ll be staying and what you’ll be doing. Some consulates will require (or suggest) that you make an appointment – if this option is available, we always recommend that you do. Other consulates take walk-in only appointments, in which case we suggest arriving right when they open to minimize wait time.
5. Make an Appointment
As we mentioned, some consulates allow appointments to be made – if that is the case, we suggest checking if the date you’d like to come in to apply is available. Even though most consulates will only allow you to apply three months before your trip, most will have the appointment dates available to be booked several months in advance. If you wait until three months before your departure date, you might find yourself with an appointment date that cuts too close – or worse, no appointment at all. Some consulates have electronic appointment systems, while others will ask you to apply – either way, it’s worth checking for an appointment date, say, 6 months in advance of your trip.
Another thing to keep in mind when you pick your appointment date – the consulate may have to hold on to your passport for as short as a few hours to as long as two weeks. Make sure to schedule your appointment during a period when you are not expecting to be traveling internationally, as you won’t have your passport available to you.
6. Prepare Your Application
After all that, it’s finally time to actually put your application together. Most consulates have the application available online, usually as a PDF. After you fill it out, you’ll usually need to gather a few key documents to support who you are and what you’ll be doing on the trip:
- Passport photos (1-2): Be prepared to bring passport photos, but sometimes the photo is used just for your file – you may have to take a photo on the spot (so be sure to be ready to be photographed just in case!).
- Originals and photocopies of identification: You’ll need to have your passport handy (for obvious reasons), but if you also carry a permanent resident card, you’ll likely need to bring that (and a photocopy!) as well. If you live locally, but live in the country on a visa/permit (say, a student visa or work permit), bring a copy of that item as well.
- Proof of transportation and accommodation: Bring along your flight reservation details and hotel booking information. Note: Some consulates will recommend that you do not book the flight before your visa gets approved (just bring a printed copy of a proposed itinerary from your airline), while others require a booked reservation – be sure to read the fine print. We always recommend booking a refundable rate for your airline ticket and hotel just in case. If you’ll be staying with friends or family, most applications will provide instructions for what documentation you’ll need to bring – in some cases your host may have to head to their city hall to obtain files to prove that they live where they say they do.
- Pay Stubs and/or Bank Statements: Typically most consulates require applicants provide the 3 most recent pay stubs and/or bank statements. Printed electronic copies are sufficient but again – read the instructions on the application.
- Letter from Company You Are Traveling to Visit (Business Travel Only)- When traveling for business, you’ll typically have to present a letter (or a form, provided by the consulate) that states the purpose of your visit, who you will be traveling to see, and the business purpose of your trip. If in letter form, this will have to be on company letterhead.
Tip: While most consulates will instruct you to bring two copies of everything, you often will only need to submit one set of everything (the exception to that rule is passport photos). That being said, a good rule of thumb is: be prepared to bring original documents and had over copies for them to keep.
7. Submit Your Application
If you needed to come in for an interview, bring all your documents with you, including a printed copy of your appointment (while not required at all consulates, it’s generally good to bring along just in case). We suggest arriving at least 15 minutes earlier than your appointment time, to give yourself time to find the place, go through security, and get processed. You’ll have to pay the visa fee, for which payment options vary consulate to consulate. Most accept cashiers checks, while others also accept debit or credit cards. Personal checks and cash are less widely accepted forms of payment.
If no interview is required, it’s time to send off your documents. If you won’t be picking up your passport in person, be sure to include a return envelope with postage in your application (more specific instructions will be provided by the consulate).
8. Pick Up Your Passport
If you didn’t have your passport mailed back to you, you’ll have to head back to the consulate to pick up your passport. Once they accept all your documents when you apply, they will typically inform you when to return. Some may require you to make an appointment to pick up your passport, while others just have you come during pick up hours.
What to Do If Things Don’t Go Smoothly
If you aren’t approved right away, there are typically two reasons:
1. You’re missing some documents that they will need to complete your application. Be prepared to have to get these documents to the consulate ASAP (before the end of visa processing hours for the day) in order to get your application processed.
2. You don’t meet the minimum requirement for the visa. This is an unfortunate situation, but it does happen. It can be for a number of reasons, and it can be different for each country you apply to. Some countries have more stringent requirements than others, and unfortunately, not every applicant the guidelines set forth.
Other Helpful Things to Know:
- Travel Insurance – Countries belonging to the EU (among others) often ask for proof of traveler’s health insurance that covers you for the duration of the trip. While you may already have travel insurance as part of your standard health care insurance, it is typically not enough to provide your insurance card. You’ll often need a letter that lists specific items (such as maximum insurance, promise of repatriation, etc) in order to meet the consulate’s requirements. Websites like Insubuy sell travelers medical insurance but coverage is provided by insurance companies – some that sound familiar, and others you’ve never heard of. If you’re applying to the EU, you’ll need an insurance letter, so be sure to select a plan that provides one if you purchase it. Note: We are not recommending using Insubuy per se, nor can we speak to the quality of medical insurance provided in instances when you might need it.
- E-Visas – Some countries offer e-visas for citizens of certain countries. For example, Myanmar offers E-Visas for US citizens visiting for up to 28 days. These are visas that you apply for entirely online – a visit to the consulate is not required at all. You may have to upload a photo online, as well as all your passport details. Once approved, you’ll receive a document that you’ll need to print off and present upon landing in your destination.
- Visa on Arrival – Certain countries will allow you to purchase a visa upon arrival. It’s pretty similar to not needing a visa (since you won’t have any real leg work to do before you get there), but you’ll likely have to pay a fee for the visa upon arrival (typically to the tune of $40+ USD). Some countries will require you to present a passport photo upon arrival – or will charge you more if you don’t have one on you. That being said, be sure to have some cash (plus a no-fee debit card certainly wouldn’t hurt) and a couple of passport photos handy if you’re planning to travel to a country where you’ll need a visa upon arrival.
- Have a Company Apply For You – Depending on the passport you maintain, some consulates will not require you to appear for an interview in order to submit your application. There are a few companies out there that can submit your application on your behalf, for a fee. For example, CIBT offers such services. In some instances, they can fast track your visa for a fee.
- What to Do When You Have Questions – Call the consulate! Ask to be connected to the visa department and they should be able to help answer any very specific questions you might have.
Keep these tips in mind and you should be all set. While the tips above won’t guarantee an approved visa (unfortunately), we hope it’ll help you feel prepared for the process. The visa application process can be absolutely nerve-wrecking – the fate of your trip rests on the decision of one person. Just get your paperwork in order, look headshot-ready, and you’ll be fine.
Remember: the information provided above are suggestions and recommendations. We in no way endorse the companies mentioned above – these are mentioned purely for example purposes. If you have questions about using these services, please leave us a message below.