An essential skill of any international traveling is knowing how to get a visa. For some countries in Asia, you will need to secure your visa in advance—visas cannot be obtained at borders—but this means you will have to get involved in the tangled webs of bureaucracy. This may not be very fun, but being prevented from boarding a plane at your departure airport—or worse, getting detained at your destination and being put back on the first flight out—is even less enjoyable. When it comes to international travel, it pays to do a little visa research before you start your trip, and visa rules and regulations are no exception to this rule
Travel Visa Definition
A travel visa is a stamp or sticker placed in your passport that grants you permission to enter a particular country. Some countries use a large sticker which occupies an entire page in your passport, while others use stamps that only consume half a page of valuable passport real estate. Most countries have a number of visa types available, but unless you plan to seek employment, relocate, teach, or are a journalist, you will most likely want to apply for a typical "tourist visa."
Regardless of the size of the visa, most countries will require you to have a number of additional blank pages in your passport. People have been turned away at airports for not meeting this requirement, so make sure to check the blank-page requirements for your destination and any countries you will be transiting through.
Are Visas Always Necessary?
Visa requirements vary from country to country and also take into account your country of citizenship. What's worse, sometimes visa requirements change regularly based on the diplomatic relationship between your home country and your planned destination.
When countries are friendly toward each other, it's common for the need for a visa to be waived or offered as a "visa on arrival," meaning you can obtain one once you arrive at the airport (true for Americans visiting countries such as South Korea and Thailand). Some stricter countries (i.e., Vietnam, China, and Myanmar) require that you apply for a visa outside of the country. If you arrive without a visa, you will not be allowed to leave the airport and will be put on the next flight out!
Caution: Although you'll find lots of information out there about how to get a visa for countries in Asia, the requirements can change—literally overnight—and make third-party websites suddenly out of date. A safer bet is to take either the country's consulate website as the final word. You can also check the U.S. Department of State's consulate website.
Another option is to call the U.S. embassy located in your planned destination to confirm any new visa requirements.
Applying from Your Home Country
You can apply for a visa in one of two ways: either arrange it before you leave home by mailing your passport to your destination country's embassy, or you can apply in person at a country's embassy either at home or while already abroad.
Employing a visa agency to coordinate the application is another option and, for countries with complicated requirements, it may be necessary. A handful of countries, such as Vietnam and India, outsource their visa processing. Visa agencies will know exactly how to get a visa for whatever country you wish to visit, and will arrange the visa electronically for a fee.
Processing your visa could take a few days or much longer, so do your research and plan well in advance.
- Look up your destination country's embassy that is closest to you; they may have several embassies in major cities scattered throughout the U.S.
- Print out the visa application form and complete it in its entirety.
- Send your passport, application, fee payment, and photos or anything else the embassy requests via certified, registered mail with tracking to the consulate.
- If all goes well, the consulate should mail your passport back to you with your visa stamped inside.
Applying While Abroad
You may be able to visit your destination country's embassy to apply for a visa while you are outside your home country. Each embassy may have their own processing time and unique requirements. Your application may take a day or two to process, or only a few hours.
If applying in person, dress nice, be courteous, and remember that the officials are not obligated whatsoever to grant your visa.
Note: Embassies like to observe holidays, even more than banks. Nearly all embassies close for lunch then reopen in the afternoon, and all will observe holidays for both the local country and the country for which they represent! Before making a trip to the embassy, check to see if any holidays are taking place. Check on Japanese festivals, festivals in Thailand, and festivals in India.
Every country requires that you complete an application; many countries request at least one passport photo to obtain a visa. Proof of adequate funds and an onward ticket are two requirements that are rarely enforced, but can be dependent on the whims of officials working that day.
- Application: You can usually print the visa application from the consulate website.
- Passport Photos: If you intend to cross several borders on your trip, consider carrying a stash of passport photos with you. Each visa application may require one or two. The photos can sometimes be taken at the border for a fee but not always. The default passport photo should be 4 x 6 centimeters on a white background, however, some countries have changed over to requiring a red or blue background.
- Valid Passport: Many countries ask that your passport be valid for at least six months after you apply, and that you have at least one empty page inside. Read more about how to get a U.S. passport.
- Proof of Adequate Funds: Some countries list showing proof of adequate funds as a visa requirement, however, it is rarely leveraged. The idea is to stop people from “bumming” around in their country and becoming a burden. Often a valid credit card, bank statement, or enough cash on hand will satisfy this requirement.
- Onward Ticket: Another archaic requirement that is only sometimes enforced: some places ask that you show proof of an onward ticket so that you will not become stuck in their country. Sometimes you can simply state that you intend to travel by bus or rail overland, or show adequate proof of funds to get around this requirement.
Visa Processing Scams
Near many borders in Southeast Asia, such as the crossing between Thailand and Laos, sneaky entrepreneurs have set up fake visa offices or visa processing centers for tourists. They charge a fee to complete your application—something that you could have done yourself for free at the border. If your bus drops you at one of these visa centers, just decline and proceed on to the border to take care of the paperwork yourself.