The Ultimate Guide to Visa Planning for Long-Term Travel
Visa Planning for Long-Term Travel is [Insert colorful adjective here!]
Suggestions include – frustrating, exhausting, confusing, and a pain in the ass. If you’re a bit of a nutter like me, you might consider – challenging and fun.
One of the biggest headaches we have on our long-term adventures is visas. An Australian passport is one of the best in the world (https://www.passportindex.org/byRank.php) and as of 2016, we can enter 150 countries visa-free or with a visa on arrival. But that still leaves a lot of planning to do. I feel for those less fortunate.
Our 2012 – 2013 trip journeyed through Asia across the Silk Route and then onto Africa. We entered 35 countries over a period of 15 months and required 25 visas costing over $4000 USD. Ouch! As you can imagine, the logistics were complicated. A few of those challenges included:
- Some countries (Ghana and China) would only issue us with the type of visa we wanted from their Consulate in Australia. That created a bit of an issue as we were living in Vietnam at the time. Luckily we had plans to visit the folks before we set off! But, we weren’t visiting for long enough to obtain them in the standard time and had to express them at double the cost! We planned to transit some places like Turkmenistan, and wouldn’t have the time to get visas for countries further into the trip.
- We planned to transit some places like Turkmenistan to avoid onerous visa requirements. That meant we wouldn’t have the time to get visas there for countries later in the trip.
- We couldn’t get many of the visas too early as they would expire before we got to the country in question. (We had to negotiate the validity on our Ghanaian visa up from a 3-month validity to 10 months)
- We had to get brand new passports because we couldn’t afford to change them over along the way and forfeit visas we’d already obtained.
The moral of the story:
Don’t leave Visa planning for long term travel to the last minute.
Ways to Obtain a Visa
You can get a visa in several ways. Some are easy, and others are a right royal pain in the butt! Below are the three most common and a list of issues to consider.
1. Visa On Arrival (VOA)
Obtaining your visa as you enter a country is the easiest and most convenient method available. There are variations on requirements though and if you’re unaware you might be refused entry and turned back. A whole world of hurt, especially if you’ve voided the visa from the country you just left.
Things to Check
- Some countries e.g. Ethiopia only allow VOA if you fly in, and there may be restrictions on what kind of visa you can obtain this way.
- Not all borders for a particular country will have the authority or facilities to issue VOA
- Some countries (like Vietnam) require you to:
- Submit your application online beforehand,
- obtain and print a letter of approval, and
- present that at the border/airport to get the visa placed in your passport.
2. Obtain your visa in a third country
Most countries, unless they’re fighting, will have embassies or consulates in others around the world, especially their neighbours. If you’re travelling overland, obtaining your visa in the country before you cross the border is usually the most convenient. Unless:
- The visa application process takes longer than you want to spend in that country.
- The visa application process requires you to submit your passport, and you can’t travel within the country without it (e.g. Vietnam).
- The embassy or consulate in that country has a reputation of making things harder or more expensive than in other options.
- The embassy or consulate will only issue visas to citizens or permanent residents of their country.
3. Obtain your visa in your country of residence
This can be problematic or expensive if:
- You’re already on the road. (like us!)
- There isn’t an embassy or consulate in your home country.(Like us for many!)
- You live a long way from the location of the embassy or consulate.(Like us in our hometown in Oz!)
In all three options, you may choose, OR require the services of a Travel Agent, specialist Visa Agency or a “helper.” It costs more but depending on the circumstances, can save you a whole world of grief. It can also be dangerous if you don’t hire the right help. Beware of:
- Fake websites that phish credit card and personal details. (This happened to fellow passengers obtaining their Nigerian visa in England.)
- Fake visas (A recent problem in Vietnam)
- Losing your passport in the mail (or to villains) during the process.
It ain’t easy but…
I wish I could say there’s an easy way to get all your visas for a long term trip. But, I can’t. Unless you’re prepared to hand over your passport and a huge bucket of cash to an agent, that’s just not the case. Even traveling through Europe has its challenges unless you’re European. The Schengen region only allows the rest of us to stay for 90 days in every 180. That was quite a challenge on our recent bicycle tour through the area.
And, there’s always a few anomalies to keep you on your toes. Our recent Caribbean trip was a case in point when we entered Puerto Rico on a private yacht. Usually, we could participate in the US Visa Waiver Program. But not in this instance. Arriving on a private vessel required us to obtain a B2 Visa and meant a whole new level of bureaucracy. (Two weeks before we were due to set off from Vietnam!!)Free resources for visa planning on long-term trips #VisaPlanning #LongTermTravel Click To Tweet
How to plan your visa acquisition strategy
First Up, here’s a spreadsheet I developed to assist with our planning. Go ahead and grab a copy for FREE HERE. The following process will make more sense. There is a list of the other resources mentioned at the end of this post.
Catch Our Travel Bug – Visa Planning Spreadsheet. Get your FREE copy Click Here
Let’s get started.
Step 1. Where are you going?
- Make a list of the countries you plan to visit, in the order; you plan to visit. (Column A on the spreadsheet) Your initial itinerary may change based on information you gather down the track, but it’s a good starting point.
- If you have an approximate timeline for your trip, write down the dates (Columns B & C)columns), and
- Calculate your length of stay (column D). Make sure you count the day you enter and the day you exit. If you don’t have a clue, come back and fill these in as new information becomes available.
Step 2 Determine if you need a visa for each country.
A simple Yes or No in the first instance.
This link to Visa Requirements for all countries is a good start. But I would also recommend you confirm from a secondary source. LINK – There is a more comprehensive list of resources at the end of this post.
Work out how long you can stay visa-free. Is it enough time? It is – Yay! Promptly perform a happy dance and move on to the next country.
If you’d planned to stay longer, you’d need to get a visa or change your itinerary. Perhaps you can exit to a neighboring country and return. However, some countries require you to stay out for a set period before returning e.g. India, and the Schengen Region.
Can you get your visa on arrival? (Column E)
Yes, No or Maybe.
Maybe means only at some borders. You may have to fly in or enter at a particular place to get one. Does that suit your plans? Yes? Happy dance is in order. At this rate, you’ll be exhausted.
Note: Check the small print regarding:
- onward travel requirements,
- other documents you need to present,
- costs, and the currency they can be paid in. (Usually local money or USD)
Make a note (in your planning spreadsheet. Column X)
We’re now at the point that you DO need a Visa and you can’t get it on arrival. Start asking these questions:
Step 3 What kind of visa do you require?
Based on your itinerary:
How many entries do you need? Single, Double or Multiple
How long is each stay? It’s usually 30, 60, 90 days etc.
If you want to stay longer than the visas on offer, are extensions available while you’re there?
If so, how many extensions are you allowed and for how long?
How long will it take you to get an extension and where you can you get them from?
I remember friends trying to extend their 30-day visas in China. They were on bicycles. It took them half their 30 days to extend their visa and the new one was activated immediately. They only gained around 15 days and had to remain in one place for far longer than they wanted to. Net gain – zero! They still had to get their bikes on a train and cut their trip short anyway.
NOTE: The number of entries and length of stay allowed may depend on which consulate is issuing the visa. For example, if we obtain a Chinese visa in Australia we can get a double entry for 60 days. If we obtain the visa in Kyrgyzstan we would only be granted single entry for 30 days.
Step 4. Find out the validity of the visa once you get it.
Your visa validity is the time between visa issuance and expiration date. Together with your arrival date, you can work out the best place to obtain your visa.
If you don’t enter (and sometimes exit) the country prior to the expiration date, your visa will be void and you’ll need to get a new one. Visa validity can be as little as one month. Thankfully, it can sometimes be negotiated. We successfully did this with our Ghanaian visa issued in Australia (3 months up to 10 months) and our American B2 Visa issued in Vietnam (3 months up to 10 Months)
Step 5. Are visas issued based on fixed dates?
Some visas are issued based on EXACT dates. You provide your date of entry and exit and your visa reflects this. It is unlikely you will be in trouble if you arrive after the entry date and leave before it expires. BUT, it provides a whole new level of complexity when you are working out your itinerary. !#$%!*! Make sure you overlap the dates of neighboring countries so you don’t get stuck with one visa running out and not being able to enter the next country.
Step 6. What extra documentation is required?
In the more bureaucratic countries, your visa application process will require extra documentation. Examples include:
- A Letter of Invitation (LOI) from an official tour company,
- Confirmed accommodation bookings,
- Flights out or proof of onward travel,
- Country Specific Insurance (e.g. Belarus, Iran)
- Proof you can pay for your trip – bank statements
Some of these might be problematic if your going overland or don’t want to book a tour. Thankfully, there are companies that have filled the void to provide a workaround.
Letters of Invitation (LOI’s)
Companies that provide LOI’s, without requiring a tour booking can often be found in the vicinity of the consulate (See our blog on obtaining Belarus visas in Vilnius). Otherwise, there are sometimes companies that can provide them online (E.g. Stantours for Iran, Russia and Central Asia)
This can get tricky, especially if you want to move about a country and haven’t nailed down you itinerary. Having to book all your accommodation is a pain.
Depending on the country, there may be limited options able to be booked online without a financial commitment. Some countries only allow Government approved hotels and they are usually expensive. Try Bookings.com, Agoda and Hostelword to start. You might get lucky and find a “No Credit Card required” option. Print the confirmation and cross your fingers. If you have to pay a small non-refundable deposit, it still might be worth it to get the treasured stamp in your passport.
Proof of Onward Travel
This is another pain in the butt if you’re traveling overland. You might be able to book a bus or train ticket online from large companies, but you’ll be out of luck if you plan to take taxis or other local options.
Fly Onwards is a new option that may be able to help out. They will provide you with international flight tickets (travel itineraries) with your name on them to use as proof of onward travel plans. They purchase and then cancel the ticket for you for a very reasonable $9.99 USD.
Note: there are some time limits to the cancellation period (48 hrs), so you need to plan ahead how you’re going to access this service. You would be extremely unlucky for the consulate to check if your flight is still valid.
Country Specific Insurance
If you require country-specific insurance, your normal travel insurance won’t suffice! Iran and Belarus are two that come to mind. There will normally be a travel agent or official office near to the consulate. The trick will be tracking it down and communicating your needs if there’s no English.
Proof You Can Pay for Your Visit
How much is enough? Occasionally they ask. Most times they don’t. Hopefully, you do have enough to support yourself and it’s just a matter of printing out a bank statement (Leave your name on it but black out account numbers and personal information) If not you might need to ask trusting souls to transfer in some cash, print the balance and then give it back.
Step 7. Identify special permits or visas for particular regions of a country you want to visit.
Sometimes a visa just isn’t enough. There may be exclusion zones. For example, a Chinese visa won’t get you into Tibet and a Tajikistan visa won’t get you into the GBR region on the Pamir Highway. You need to go through a separate process for those. Best create another line on the spreadsheet and deal with it separately.
Step 8. Identify whether you can obtain the visa in a third country (or only your own).
Paired with the validity, this might make you rethink your itinerary.
In fact, at this stage, your head might be about to explode and you’re about to cancel the trip altogether!
In fact, at this stage, your head might be about to explode and you’re about to cancel the trip altogether!
C’mon. This is fun.
Step 9. Identify the best place to get your visa.
You should now have most, if not all, of the information required for the visas you need. It’s now time to identify where you can get them.
While you may prefer to obtain your visas before you leave home, that might not be possible, convenient or cost effective. It also limits your flexibility, especially if dates for entry are fixed on the visa. If possible, we try and obtain our visas in the adjacent country. But we always have a plan B.
This part of the process can be tedious. Surprisingly, many embassy and consulate websites are poorly maintained, usually because they are badly designed in the first place. Links don’t work, information is old and often hard to find in multi-layered navigation systems. There is no one process page and you need to jump all over the place to find the complete story.
Three resources and a Google search.
Despite a lot of searching, I’ve yet to find a fully comprehensive tool. Quite often listings will show the main embassy in the capital city and neglect to mention other, more convenient locations.
Embassy Pages, Embassy Worldwide, and Embassy Finder don’t do a bad job and show many consulate and embassy locations around the world. Unfortunately, none of them appears fully comprehensive. Check at least two and compare.
Information does change so validate what you find by tracking through to the individual government websites (not always possible). Visa information is normally found under the “Consular” section of the site if it’s not immediately apparent.
Also, note that the consular services may be in a different building (sometimes different neighbourhood) than the Embassy. Eg. The Ukraine representation in Vilnius!!
Of course, you can always Search for:
[Country you’re visiting] consulate in [Country you’d prefer to get your visa in]
And see what you come up with. Nine times out of ten it will be one or more of the three resources above at the top and you’ll have to drill deep to find anything different.
Stick With It. You’ll get there in the end.
Step 10. Choosing which place is best
Identify two or three choices
Once you’ve verified that there is a consulate in countries adjacent to the country you want the visa for, identify your first choice (Apply Option 1 in the spreadsheet) and a back up plan (Apply Option 2). You might even consider investigating an extra one.
Which of those will accept your application?
Some consulates only process visas for residents. If you’re just passing through, you won’t get one.
When can you apply for and receive your visa?
Identify days and times for visa application submissions and pick up, AND how long they take to issue. Do they quote calendar days or business days. How does that fit in with your proposed itinerary? Ideally, you should plan to arrive in the city the day before you submit the application to minimize the time you’ll need to spend there. If visa applications are only accepted on Tuesday and Thursday’s and take 5 working day’s to process, arriving on a Friday will extend your stay by 4 days. Rather than a week, you’ll need to stay 11 days.
Are there any special requirements at each Consulate?
Note any special requirements – documentation requirements, security protocols, photograph specifications and add the information to your notes.
Is any of the choices particularly difficult?
Perform a quick search of blogs and forums to identify common problems or issues with each particular consulate. Unhelpful staff, disorderly lines, high refusal rates and a history of losing documents are all good reasons to change your choice.
Step 11. Reassess your itinerary
OK, you have as much information as you can muster. You’ve got a pretty good handle on costs. You know where you’re likely to be stuck for a while waiting for visas and you know the best strategy to get the process completed in the shortest possible time.
How does it look? Do you need to change around the order of countries you visit? Do you need to deviate off your original path to pick up a visa? Is it going to be impossible to get the visa in the time you have? And therefore, do you have to fly over or go around this time?
This happened to us on our recent cycling adventure. We were running out of Schengen days. The Ukrainian consulate in Vilnius wanted 10-15 working days for a standard visa or double the price to process them in 5. It was cheaper for us to fly the bikes OVER Ukraine to Moldova than to pay for the faster processing time. And, we preserved our precious Schengen days to spend more time at our final destination, Hungary. Disappointing, but the best choice for us at the time.
A few Extra Hints to make getting your visa as painless as possible.
- Identify all document and photo requirements before you go to the consulate. Download and fill out as much of the documentation as you can and if you need special insurance (e.g. Belarus and Iran) work out where and how to obtain it. Sometimes you won’t know this until you start the application process..
- Dress up (as best as possible) I know some travelers who’ve been refused visas because they turned up looking scruffy, unkempt and unshaven. But wear comfortable shoes. You could be waiting for a while.
- Arrive as early as possible. 30 minutes to an hour before opening time is a good rule of thumb. You’ll often find “place holders” there before you. We have been at consulates that were an absolute bun fight!! Queue jumpers, especially agents with multiple passports can extend your wait time considerably. The closer you can get to the front of the queue, the better. Especially if applications can only be submitted in a small window of time. The Mongolian embassy in China and the Mauritanian embassy in Morocco are two particularly frustrating examples.
- Take weather protection – an umbrella, sunscreen, a hat, water (and a strong bladder!). Very few consulates will allow you to line up inside the complex. You are normally lined up on the pavement and there are rarely seats or shelter.
- Be calm, patient and polite at all times, even if the official is giving you a hard time. They are not obligated to give you a visa, even if you meet all the criteria. Being an official in many countries is one big power trip. A smile and a bit of grovelling goes a long way.
- Check all the details on the visa – WHILE you are still in the consulate. Dates, number of entries, personal details. EVERYTHING! It’s too late to get things changed once you’ve left.
The “Easy way”?
I did say at the beginning that obtaining visas for a long, multi-country trip wasn’t going to be easy. Even when you have the visa, there may be special registration processes you have to undertake once you enter a country. That’s another story for another day.
But there are ways you can smooth the path.
- You could engage a Visa Specialist where possible. It will be pricey but (perhaps) more convenient! You will still have visa expiry date issues but they might be able to sort them out for you.
- Go on a tour. They may not arrange everything for you but they will have the latest advice. And, provided they’re an officially recognized company they will be able to:
- provide a LOI,
- meet your onward travel and confirmed accommodation obligations, and
- facilitate the process while you’re on the road.We took an overland truck with African Trails through West Africa which solved our onward travel requirements AND left most of the coordination of visas to the company representative. A couple of companies we recommend:-
- G Adventures–
- Oasis Overland–
- African Trails
- Go Around. Of course, you can simply avoid countries for which you need a visa. There are plenty more places to see.We skipped Bulgaria, Romania and Hungry in the late nineties as the visa requirements were too onerous for us at the time. (We no longer need a visa for these countries and swung on through during our most recent cycling trip) Personally, we have always found the effort to be worth it. Central Asia, Africa, Central America and the Middle East are fascinating destinations.
Country Specific Visa Requirements
Visa requirements for American Citizens
Visa Requirements for UK Citizens
Visa Requirements for European Union Citizens
Visa Requirements for Australian Citizens
Visa Requirements for New Zealand Citizens
Visa Requirements for Canadian Citizens
A handy tool to stay on track in the Schengen Regions in Europe.
This one we used for our cycling trip through Europe. It’s FREE and pretty easy to use. There are other paid apps but this one has the best reviews.
Proof of Onward Travel.
Letters of Invitation
Stantours (Iran, Russia, and Central Asia)
Trinity Hostel (Belarus)
There you go……..
We hope this post and our Visa Planning Spreadsheet is of value to you. (Click Here to get your copy if you haven’t already) Getting your visas sorted is just one part of ensuring your dream trip goes smoothly. If you want to know what else goes into planning stress free long-term travel, check out my book Get Away Worry Free – Pre-Trip Tips for Long-Term Travel.
What are your tips for reducing visa hassle? How can we improve this post? Let us know in the comments below.