As a passport holder from a developing country, I have to apply for a lot of visas. It’s a pain to have to do it so often, but I really like having those pretty stickers that decorate my passport when I want to travel anywhere. According to a recent poll that ranks passport strength, Indonesian passport holders can travel to only 58 countries visa-free, making it #79. By comparison, U.S. passport holders can travel to 174, ranking them #4. Canadians are #6, with visa-free travel to 172 countries.
What is a visa anyway?
If you’re new to all this, a visa is an endorsement made by the host country that basically says the traveler can come to the host country for the purposes stated on the application. It’s different than the passport stamp you receive when you arrive. There are several types of visas:
- The electronic visa: You can get one of these online prior to your trip
- Visa On Arrival: VOA is the visa you get at an airport/border when you arrive
- The pre-approved visa: You have to apply for the visa prior to your travel. It usually involves sending your passport to the embassy or consulate of the host country
In this post, I’m going to discuss the process for #3, the pre-approved visa. This can be simple, or it can be a nightmare. Here are some things to consider while applying for a visa.
Know the exact requirements for applying for a visa
Many embassies and consulates maintain good web sites that clearly outline the process of applying for a visa. These processes are generally located under their Consular Affairs section. There are many different types of visas, and most likely you will need the tourist or short stay visa, which is typically valid for 1-30 days. If you’re visiting for study, medical reasons, or business, there are completely different requirements that can be found on the web site.
If there is something specific to your travel you need clarified, you should contact the embassy or consulate directly by email or phone. You will also want to confirm that you applying under the correct category and have the correct forms to fill out.
Passport and Photos
When applying for a visa, you will need to send your original passport with the visa application. Many times, you will also need to send either the original or a copy of your residency card or proof that you live in another country legally. In almost all cases, your passport must have 3-6 months of validity beyond your travel dates. You must also be sure your passport has a blank page where the visa sticker can be applied.
Passport photo requirements vary from country to country, particularly with respect to the size and quality. The U.S. and Canada have very strict requirements, for example. I recommend that you find a professional photographer who is familiar with these requirements to do it for you. Glasses and head covers may or may not be worn. Some countries ask that your passport photo be signed or stamped on the back.
Tip: If you live in a city where there are lots of immigrants, go to a photographer who lives in that area. In Atlanta, there is a section of the city that is mostly populated by people from Asia and Central America. We found a photographer there who knows just about everything because he has to!
Get your documents in order
Typically, documentation you need when applying for a visa is similar, no matter where you’re going. The documents and application forms are typically listed on the web site or at the embassy or consulate general office. Be sure that you fill out the correct forms with all the required details. Here are some other letters and documents that usually required to be included with the application:
Ongoing Tickets, Itinerary and Hotel Reservation
Many countries require you to demonstrate that you are planning on leaving the country after you’re visa expires. No country wants you to overstay your visa, and they certainly don’t want you to become a burden for their country. Sometimes, providing this proof can be difficult for longer-term travelers who only have a one-way ticket. Expert Vagabond has an excellent post on providing this proof if you’re in this type of situation.
Some countries, like Iran, require a detailed itinerary that shows what you will be doing on their countries, and this should be easy to list. Sometimes, hotel accommodation reservations are also required – you can simply book your accommodation in advance.
Tip: If you don’t want to pay for a hotel or hostel (for example, if you’re staying with friends or using Couchsurfing, just find a site where you can cancel your reservation without penalty. Booking.com allows this.)
Letters of Invitation/ Sponsors
Some countries, like Russia, require a sponsor for your visa application that can guarantee your accommodation during your stay. Hotels or tour companies typically can produce a letter of invitation that will satisfy this requirement.
For independent travelers staying with friends or family: Sometimes your host’s citizenship or immigration status documents are required. In the invitation letter, they have to state their relationship to you and include their contact numbers, addresses, and a copy of their national ID, resident cards, or passports.
Employment Status and Proof of Funds
When applying for a visa, almost all countries require you to provide your employment status and proof of funds to demonstrate your ties to your home country. This lets them know you intend to go home and resume your daily life after your visit. Ask your employer to write a letter that outlines your job and salary, which sometimes specifically required by the Embassy. If this difficult to get, you can usually submit a copy of your last three pay-stubs.
“Proof of Funds” is a document that demonstrate your ability to support yourself during your stay. Often, there is no minimum amount they want to see, but it makes sense, for example, in a country like Norway, where it is very expensive. Conversely, Southeast Asia is far cheaper. The Schengen visa application requires a minimum of 50€/day to cover expenses. I’ve been told that the magic number for this requirement is about $1,000 US.
The Schengen Visa application notoriously requires applicants to have travel insurance. Your insurance must cover the entire length of your stay in the Schengen area. The requirement specifies a minimum of 30,000€ medical coverage, or about $50,000. You can easily satisfy this requirement by purchasing a policy from World Nomads, our preferred provider.
The most common vaccination requirement is the one for yellow fever, but requirements vary widely by country, as well as by the activities you are planning. Will you be staying in a city or in the middle of the jungle? Will you be in an area where any potential health risk might occur? I would recommend going to a doctor more familiar with travelers, as they would be more knowledgeable about the requirements. Ask the Embassies or Consulate Generals before you leave.
Next, let’s dig into visa specifics…
Single vs multiple entries
This is probably the most overlooked question when applying for a visa, but it’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make.
Most travelers will only enter the country one time and then continue on to the next destination. But sometimes, you will visit another country in the vicinity and want to come back – perhaps for your return flight home. In that case, you’ll need a multiple entry visa. Multiple entry visas are typically more expensive, but you will save time and money instead of applying for several single entry visas.
Be sure that your visa sticker is correct when you get it. For example, my Argentina visa was issued as single-entry and had to be corrected. So, check the visa as soon as you get your passport back and inform officials immediately if there are errors.
Scheduling an appointment for interviews
Sometimes, the visa application process requires you to appear in person at the nearest consulate or embassy. The U.S.A. is notorious for this. You will need to schedule an appointment and make the appropriate payment before you visit. Even though the personal appearance requirement is outlined clearly on the web site, it’s worth checking to see whether there’s an option not to appear, especially if you live far away.
Sending your passport and documents
The majority of embassies are located in the nation’s capital. Consulates usually operate in other big cities in the country. Check their page to see which jurisdiction your home is in before you schedule any appointments. You don’t want to go to the consulate in City A only to find out you were supposed to go to City B!
If you have to send out the application with the postal service or a courier, be sure the address is correct. Tracking numbers and insurance are highly recommended. Last year, my passport was lost by a courier and while they reimbursed me for the postage and the cost of getting a new passport, it would have been quite expensive if they refused to do it and I had no insurance.
Some embassies and consulates require a self-addressed, postage-paid envelope to return your passport. Others include that cost in the visa fees.
Time frame to process your visa application
This is the most important one – processing times. You must ensure there is enough time for your visa application to be processed and for the passport to be sent back to you. Generally, you can apply for a visa two to three months prior to your departure date and a visa application will take about ten business days to process. With three days shipping each way, that gives you about 16 business days – about three weeks. Be patient and be polite. Sometimes, it’s helpful to follow up with the Embassy if a reasonable time-frame has passed.
Usually, the Consul General has the final say on whether or not a visa is granted. For some countries though, the visa application must be submitted to the central Federal government, where they have the final say on approval. This can be very frustrating, since it may take a long time for them to decide. And deep down, you just know that your application is sitting on someone’s desk and nothing is happening with it.
This happened to me with the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the Argentinian Consulate General in Atlanta. Both received my completed visa applications with plenty of lead time. I knew they had to send my application to their home countries. I gave them both about three months to process my visa application. As my departure dates loomed closer, both informed me on follow-up calls that they were still waiting for the immigration office to decide my fate. The Argentinian Consul apologized profusely, while the Egyptians just shrugged their shoulders and said that she would let me know when she hears anything back from the government.
Three years later after the trip was supposed to have taken place and I still haven’t heard from her.
No consulate or embassy? No problem.
Not all nations have representation in every other country. There can be many reasons for this. Perhaps there isn’t enough need or there is no bilateral relationship between the two countries. How, then, do you go about applying for a visa?
Most embassies requires a visit to the nearest representative of the country – a consulate or embassy. For example, Indonesians who want to go to Guatemala have to appear, in person, at the Guatemalan embassy in Japan. A trip to Japan would be prohibitively expensive for most Indonesians. In cases like this, check with the consulate or embassy to see if they will allow applicants to ship passports and applications to their office. Contact your visa office for clarification.
Sometimes, countries have very bad relationships with each other. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit. How do you apply a visa in this situation? Generally, when a country doesn’t have an official consulate or embassy, it does have an ‘interests section’ at another embassy. This is where they ha handle visa applications> An example of this type of relationship is the Iran/US relationship. Iran has no embassy or consulate in the US. As such, all Iranian visas are handled at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, DC. Another example – North Korea. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang does work on their behalf.
Final notes on applying for a visa
When you receive your passport, it is very important to be sure all the information on the visa is correct. If you are physically present in embassy or consulate, do it there and get any mistakes fixed immediately:
- Is your name correct?
- Did they record your passport number right?
- Check your birth date
- Check the validity dates
- Is it single or multiple-entry?
I’ve found errors on several visas. Passport numbers recorded incorrectly on my Brazil & Guatemala visas. My multiple-entry visa was stamped “single-entry”
Finally, make sure you get all of your original documents back, including any residency cards you might have and your birth certificate.
There are lots of visa services out there that will do all this for you. But we think you can almost always do this on your own and avoid paying potentially hundreds of dollars extra. Still, we’ll be posting about visa services in the not-too-distant future and will be linking to that post right here. So come back soon!
Enjoy your trip!
That’s a lot of information, right? But really, it’s not all that much. Generally, applying for a visa is a smooth process. If things go wrong, it’s usually because of poor planning and sending incorrect supporting documents. A well-traveled passport is always a good indication that you will be returning home.
So get out there and travel! Bon voyage, and have a great time with newly issued visa! Let us know your stories – good or bad – about applying for a visa.
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