The world of visas and permits is intrinsically related to the backpacking world. The rules and regulations to enter a country or access certain areas in a given region change constantly rather often. Not only that, with the proliferation of independent traveling some governments have impose strict processes before granting a visa to their country. While, to a certain extent, it is understandable that governments want to know who enters their territory, for how long and which what intention; at the same time, all this paperwork, the often long lines, and, in some cases, endless procedures are probably the part of their journey that most travellers enjoy the least.
Obviously we cannot cover every single country’s visa procedure in one article – we probably would need a dedicated Web site for that! But we are going to try to summarize the type of visas we have encountered according to the degree of difficulty that it takes to get them. Along with that we’ll share some examples out of our own personal experience. Ultimately we hope that with the information we provide you can be better prepare and know what information you need to know when getting ready for a trip that requires one or multiple visa issuing.
Easy peasy! — initiation level
- The easiest visa is without a doubt the “visa-on-arrival“. For most Western nationalities that’s the applicable visa type for many Southeast Asian countries and also Latin American countries. On the other hand, Chinese passport holders have it much better to obtain that kind of visa when traveling not just within Southeast Asia but also in a large number of African countries. Alternatively, for those countries where your nationality dos not entitle you to get visa-on-arrival, you should check if they have a 48 or 72-hour transfer visa. That’s the case of Malaysia or Hong Kong, where nationalities that need to apply for a visa before arriving there, can apply for a short-term transit visa at the arriving airport – as long as they show proof of and inbound ticket to exit the country within the maximum length of time allowed by that transit visa.
- Visas that consist simply on receiving a visitor’s number (aka Electronic Visa) – sort of an easy way of giving the immigration department of the country of destiny a heads up that you will be visiting soon. In the past, travel agencies completed this process when getting the plane tickets through them. Nowadays, because, among other reasons, not that many people get their plane tickets through an agency anymore, we are require to complete this procedure by ourselves online. Countries that feature this system for most nationalities’ passports holders are: Australia, New Zealand, USA…
- Visas that you can exclusively get through a government accredited travel agency. That’s the case of a few countries, namely: Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Bhutan. Access to these countries is restricted mostly to pricey group tours or even more expensive solo-tours. Libya used to be on that list too while Gaddafi was in power, and although it is not fully defined yet, it seems that the new government will continue the same system. This type of visa certainly limits the amount of travellers entering their borders and where they go when inside (which is perhaps their goal), only being able to visit and experience what the local travel agencies arrange for them. It might not be ideal for many adventurous travellers, but it’s still better than nothing.
Bureaucracy reveals itself! — medium level
- Visas that you must get at the designated consulate in your home country or region. This visa issuing policy is annoyingly increasing among countries. For instance Indian visas, which is completely different of how easy used to be to receive a 6-month or longer visa for India at any Indian consulate around the world before. Pakistan is also one of the countries that strictly adheres to this regulation as well. Other countries such as Yemen or Syria (at least before 2012) are not flexible at their consulates but you can take a chance and try to get it at the border as you enter those countries. It’s not recommendable, especially if you know your travel plans in advance before you leave home. But in some desperate situations that might be the only opportunity of continuing your trip.
- Cheaper visas through an agency that at the consulate. So far we have only found one type of country for which this situation occurs: Vietnam. Specifically, at the Vietnamese consulate in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), getting your visa is substantially more expensive than using one of the many agencies that offer you the same service and pretty much as quick as the consulate can do it. We didn’t really figure out why is that, but it works.
This is getting ridiculous — advanced level
The visas that require you to obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI) can be quite irritating. Central Asian countries are infamous for them. Uzbekistan and Iran, both ask you to submit an LOI along with your passport and application form. Yet, you can fairly easily obtain these letters through a travel agency without even knowing anybody at the country of destination. Nevertheless, they are not cheap (about $60 to $80 a pop – only for the LOI) and you need to account well for the time the agency will need to successfully process the LOI, before you can actually present your visa application (along with the LOI) at the consulate.
There are other countries where the LOI is not always a mandatory requirement but will increase your chances of getting your visa. A clear of example for that one would be Pakistan, for which depending on your nationality, you might not need an LOI at all to apply for a Pakistani visa at your designated Pakistani consulate.
Besides visas and LOIs, some countries require you also to apply at the consulate for a permit to visit certain areas inside the country. This is rather important because in some cases it is virtually impossible to obtain these permits once inside the country. And accessing those permit-required areas without your permit can mean serious trouble for you. So, even if you originally don’t plan to visit those areas, and as long as the extra-cost is not too significant, we would advice you to include all the areas that require a permit when getting your visa at the consulate. Countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are a clear example of the “permit scheme” we just explained. Then other countries such as India and China will require you to get local permits to enter specific areas, but unlike in the Central Asian countries we just mentioned, here the permits need to be issued at the local designated office. Got to love bureaucracy.
Black belt of visas — pro level
The one visa that we have found the hardest to get, and for that reason we have given its own category, is the Turkmen visa “the mother of all visas” – and we only applied for the transit visa! But for that we first had to obtain our LOI from the designated travel agency, deposit our application documents at the Turkmen embassy in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), come back a week or so later to hand over our passport – which took us two days to accomplish because you need to put your name on a very suspicious list that theoretically starts clean again every night at 00:01am. Yet in most cases only the first 14 people on that list manage to get inside the consulate after queuing outside the building all morning and until the diplomatic team leaves for lunch at 12pm. Then, finally come back for a third time the next day to pick up our passport with the longed Turkmen transit visa adhered to one of the pages of your passport — hallelujah! At one point we seriously considered overnight in front of the consulate just like if it was the Apple store the night before the latest iPhone model comes out, pure madness
(!) A couple of key concepts that we’ll need to know before we can understand the information in our visa:
Period of validity vs. period of stay
An important thing we should be clear about the difference between the period of time that the visa is valid and the authorized period of stay granted by the visa. While the visa validity indicates the time period allowed to use the visa to enter the country, the authorized period of stay is the total continuous length allowed to remain inside the country after entering. Yet, the interpretation of these two and which one takes precedence in case of overlap can differ from country to country, so it would be wise to ask at the consulate when obtaining your visa.
As a case in point, if we obtain a visa from the consulate of the country we want to visit with issue date January 1 and valid to use within 3 months, that means that we can enter the country with that visa no later than March 31 of the same year. Then if the visa grants us a period of stay of 30 days that means that starting the day we enter the country we can remain inside it for a maximum of 30 consecutive days. So if we enter on March 1, we need to leave the country no later than March 30. However, as mentioned before, if we were to use that visa to enter the country on March 15, we need to make sure that the last day we are authorized to remain inside the country is indeed April 13 (30 days after our entry date) and not March 31 (the last day before the visa is no longer valid).
There are certain border crossings where visa officers will try to charge you a few bucks for anything they can come up with: stamping fees, entry form fees, health certificate sheet fee (if you don’t carry your International Certificate of Vaccination) and (our favourite) extra-fee for coming on abnormal working hours fee – that is weekdays after 4pm and during the weekend (!).
Of course none of these fees are official and the one or two dollars you’ll be required to pay here and there go straight into the officers’ pocket. In some cases you might be able to dodge them, but whatever you try we advice you not to loose your temper with the visa officers because that can only make things worse.
While these annoying, yet mostly inoffensive, additional fees are not uncommon at border passes around Southeast Asia; more intimidating and exorbitant fees are the norm in some areas in Africa and Central Asia. In Africa, countries such as Equatorial Guinea are absurdly corrupt and you will compulsively be asked to pay just to get through a random checkpoint on the road. In former Soviet countries in Central Asia (and also still in some places in Russia), police officers patrolling the streets will actively look for tourists asking them to see their passport and check if they have register with the local police after their arrival into the country. Their aim is to extort you some money if you didn’t register, threatening you to take you arrested to the police office.
We do not encourage bribing or “tipping” to make your way through borders or to expedite your visa, because this will only encourage the people taking the bribe to continue extorting people for that extra-cash. It’s not always easy to confront these people and in most cases it can be quite intimidating and especially time consuming. But in our experience, good manners, respect and standing up for what is right will ultimately prevail over corruption. Plus being (or pretending to be) a European football fan is also something that many guards and officers respond well to when the situation gets too tense!
To finish, just remember that all information you find on forums and the Internet regarding visas is helpful but not necessarily up to date – as many visa regulations and requirements change rapidly for some countries. And of course, while one thing might be true for one nationality, it might be entirely different for another one. So again, if possible, better check with your designated consulate of the country you want to visit.