Navigate the visa jungle

A quick guide

Visas are without much debate one of the most tricky things of travelling, and it's truly a "the more you know, the more you know you don't know" type of field. Therefore, I believe awareness of common pitfalls, terminology and concepts is essential - and it's what I will try to compile in this guide.

Disclaimer: This is a very broad, general top-down view of the visa universe. The intention is not to teach you for a specific country, but more about the typical options and typical laws. Please, please, please remember that each and every country is different.

Visa types and borders

Open borders

In open border unions you there's rarely border controls in sight when crossing
Open border unions are relevant for people living inside or having already entered such a union. You cannot enter an open border union from outside, without passing through immigration. Probably the best known open border union is the Schengen Area. Take note, that while the members of the European Union and members of Schengen have a large overlap, they aren't entirely identical.

Open border unions allow travellers to pass from one country to the next without being checked... Usually. Even within Schengen, the Nordic Passport Union and similar agreements, you're required to carry some form of ID, and passport checks happen.

Visa exemption

Visa exemption or visa-free entry (not to be confused with landing visa) means you won't have to apply for a visa ahead of arrival and you won't need a visa to enter. Your passport will get stamped and then you're good to go.

Whether you're eligible for visa exemption first and foremost depends on your nationality. But in some countries your previous number visits within a given time period factor into your eligibility. Even your mode of transport and port of arrival can play their part. Vietnam, for instance, state that you can only enter a certain number of times per year on visa exemption, while Belarus, as of 2019, only allows visa exemption if you arrive and depart from Minsk International Airport. Yes, it means what you think: Arrive by trains or bus, and you need visa. Arrive by air, and you might be able to enter without visa.

There's usually also some no-brainer requirements such as having a clean criminal record in said country.

Transfer

Catching a connecting flight is not always as easy as it should be
Catching a connecting flight is known as transfer or lay-over. It sounds simple enough, and it usually is, but there's still a few things to write behind the ear regarding visa. Even countries where you're normally required to apply for a visa may offer anything from 24 to 144 hours to transfer visa-free. In other cases you'll be shopping for a transfer visa.

The number of hours depend on nationality and (air)port you're transfering through. You'll need to keep your eyes open, because even within the same country you may get a different length of transfer time at different ports.

Whether you're allowed to leave the airport in your transfer time depends on the country.

Tourist visa

Tourist visas are meant for, well, tourists, such as sighseeing or visiting friends. We're not going to go into too much depth here.

It's crucial to understand the limits of a tourist visa. It might be illegal to apply for jobs, look for jobs, getting married, volunteering, studying, etc.

Working holiday visa

Working holidays let you combine travel and work, legally.
The working holiday visa is a popular option for long-term travellers seeking to live in a foreign countries for a limited time. The working holiday allows you to undertake a job that pays for your living expenses during your stay.

There's normally only one or two handfulls of countries to choose from, and age limit is usually between 30 and 35. Step one is to figure out which countries your home country collaborate with, and then the conditions, such as types of employment, age, etc.

Working holidays typically last 3 to 6 months, and may be restricted to the job you put on your visa application.

Visa waiver programmes

Travellers from a lot of countries don't need visas to enter the US, but instead register their arrival through ESTA.
A visa waiver program is the visa-world's answer to "We kinda like you and we also almost trust you 100%, but... Yeaaaah". It's sort of a mix of a visa exemption and tourist visa. You will need to submit some information and confirmations, but it's not as pulling-my-hair-out annoying as an actual visa application.

An example of a visa waiver program is the United States' ESTA, and the soon-to-be European counter-part.

You'll need to submit the application within the specified deadline, but keep in mind that submitting is not a guarantee. First of all, you will need an actual confirmation from immigration, but under certain circumstances they could require you to apply for a visa - and they will not necessarily tell you why. So make sure to do things with time to spare.

Visa extension

Some countries allow visa extension for certain nationalities, even visa exempted visitors on occasion. Rules and conditions vary, but you will usually need to show up a tourist center or similar authority.

Long-term visa

Calling another country "home" takes dedication
Broadly speaking there's no such thing as a long-term visa. But there are various residential permits, granted through employment, marriage or other permanent'ish commitments to a country.

You may also look into the US green card or the EU blue card. But these aren't just bought from a vending machine. They require a strong background, as well as commitment and willingness to live in a country. "My Instagram pics will be so amazeballs!! <3" will probably not be regarded as a legit reason.

Other types of visa

Countries offer different kind of visas, ranging in anything from "my wife is studying in your country, so I can come along" to investor visas. As mentioned, there's not a one-size-fits-all answer to visas, and researching a country can take a long time.

Select countries offer artist and freelancer visas.

Job and moving

Employment

Taking job in another country is the most common way to get residency permit
Working in another country is probably the most common way to get the proper permits and documents to stay long-term legally.

Volunteering is generally speaking considered employment and requires more than a tourist visa to be carried out legally.

You can also look into your options for job-seeker visa. They are sometimes granted to outsiders looking to find a job. They are usually available to foreigners graduating, and I've heard of job-seeker visas allowing stays for up to 18 months, as long as you can prove you have the funds to take care of yourself.

Moving to another country that is not within some kind of union with your country is not an easy undertaking. The easiest way is usually employment or studying. But beyond that there's limited options. You're usually looking at marrying a local or investing money. Some countries have additional options, but these are broadly speaking the options you have at your hand.

Note: EU citizens enjoy high mobility and can broadly speaking set up camp anywhere in EU, as long as they provide required paper work and carry out the required registrations.

Applying for visa

Methods

Getting a visa is not as hard as it used to be... For some people
Depending on nationality you have different options for applying in each country.

It's normally preferred that you apply through the embassy in your own country, but in a lot of cases you can apply through embassies in other countries as well. Contact them in advance to make sure they will process your application.

A word of warning: I asked a company for assitance to apply for my Russia visa when I was out-of-country. They literally wrote "if you send you passport to a secret address we'll take care of everything". And I never even replied. Obviously, you should never do something like this, which is clearly very shady and risky.

Invitation

Russia and other countries ask certain nationals for an invitation to apply for visa. This doesn't (necessarily) mean you need someone on the inside, inviting you to join. You can buy invitations from tourist companies, and as long as they are approved by the government, this is a legit way of obtaining the invitation.

It's not unusual that invitations cost a small fee, but some agencies offer invitations as part of their package. I obtained my invitation for free when I bought my tickets for the Trans-Siberian.

Getting the right information

Looking up information online is fine, as long as the purpose is to get a rough idea of the requirements. Sadly, visa rules, relations and agreements expire and change between countries all the time, so information decays quickly.

Contacting the local embassy or consulate of the country you're looking to visit, is the fail-safe option. Even information on your nation's foreign ministry website can be out of date.

A few definitions

Proof of funds

Authorities may want proof that you can support yourself
Proof of funds are bank statements or similar documentation showing you have enough money to support yourself during your stay. You may be asked for proof of funds while applying for the visa, but also when passing through immigration.

"So how much should I have on my bank?" Some countries have a very specific minimum amount, while others will lean on the word "sufficient". In other words, if you're questioned, you will have to convince the officials that the money you've access to are indeed sufficient.

What documents are needed vary as well. Some will ask specifically for the last 3 months worth of bank statements, others just need to see that you're carrying a credit card. You might also have the option to have a sponsor.

While it may be difficult for immigration to keep an eye on, it is of course not legal or right to borrow money for the purpose of making it look like you have sufficient funds. Meaning that the money appear on your account and then you transfer them back after you enter the country. You're purposefully misleading the immigration official.

Registration

Some countries require that you register your stay. This is in almost every case taken care of by your hotel or hostel.

The registration is confirmed either on your migration card or with a receipt, and you should in theory be able to show it to the authorities upon request.

Be mindful that many private hosts may neglect to register your stay, and this may entail severe consequences, including but not limited to fines, jail and/or deporation.

Countries that hand you a migration card generally require that you present the card when you leave, so hold onto it.

Immigration officers

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You got your visa. Everything's great... Almost. A visa is not a guarantee you can enter. The immigration officer is the person who checks your passport and the point where you - from a legal perspective - enter a country.

Legally speaking, countries oftentimes have a clause in their immigration policy stating something along the lines of "satisfy an immigration officer", which roughly translates to "if the immigration officer finds you untrustworthy (s)he can refuse entry".

Actual refusal happens, but very, very rarely from what I've heard. There's usually a good reason when a person is refused, for instance insufficient documentation, rude behavior or unwillingness to cooperate.

Keep in mind that the remaining validity of your passport matters.

Passport stamps

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Passport stamps are much more than a souvenir. They are a tangible proof of entry (and sometimes departure), used by immigration, airlines and shipping lines alike, to determine the length of your stay.

Beware that some countries have such poor relations with their neighbours that they are likely to refuse entry to their country if your passport has a stamp from their enemy country. This is for instance the case with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and also Israel and some of their enemies. You might want to look into which order to visit certain countries.

And you wouldn't think it was necessart to say it, but please don't stamp your passport in tourist attractions. I visited a train station right on the border to North Korea, and our tour guide told that several people used the North Korean stamp on their own passport, and got in major trouble when trying to leave South Korea. The only people who should stamp your passport is officials!

Expired and invalidated passports

When you renew your passport your local authority will typically cut off a corner of the frontpage or stamp a hole in it. This is a message to immigration officers and authorities in other countries that your passport is no longer valid. You cannot travel on this passport anymore!

Remember to remove your passport cover. In most cases the official will simply tell you to, but someone who really just wants to be a dick may accuse you of all sorts of weird things you don't want to be accused of.

Deporation and refusal of entry

Don't get the "bye, bye" from an immigration officer
At first glanze, one may think being deported is a fun story. But it's probably one of the worst things that can happen to traveller. Your deportation will follow you for life. Your deporation will be recorded in numerous databases, you will get an ugly "Deported" stamp in your passport, and you can never honestly say you were not deported in future visa applications.

Be extra careful with overstepping local laws. It's simply not worth it. Pay the extra respect, follow the local conduct and behave like a good visitor.

Deporation usually happens when you've already entered a country. You may get detained, for instance for working illegally or breaking the law, and after serving your sentence and paying your fines, you'll get booted.

Refused entry is slightly more forgivable, but not necessarily unproblematic. Refused entry happens when you're not allowed to enter a country. It could be a forgotten or invalid passport, but also because the immigration is suspicious about you or if there's something wrong with your documentation.

When you're refused entry the airline is slapped with a fine (which they will try to pin on you, and maybe they should?) and is required to bring you back to the original destination. Familiarize yourself with your rights if the situation ever arises.

The infamous onward ticket

The onward ticket works as documentation for your intent to leave
Ah, the age old question of the onward ticket. "Is it necessary?". Well, yes, it kinda is. Immigration anywhere in the world may ask for proof that you intend to leave - and they have the right to. But this requirement is usually enforced more by airlines than by immigrations. Immigration might ask for it, but the airline most definitely will ask, if they're flying to a destination known for potentially asking for proof of onward travel.

In effect, an airline will refuse boarding, if you can't produce the onward ticket. Why? As mentioned above, if you're refused entry, they're liable for bringing you back on top of paying a fine.

There's a number of work-arounds for the onward ticket if you're unsure how long you'll stay. The most straight-forward is buying a ticket you can rebook or cancel. I personally don't support this kind of solution, since I believe strongly in being honest to immigration and respectful to the laws of the countries I visit.

Caution! A number of services have arisen where you can buy fake onward tickets. Do not engage in such activities. The money you save simply don't match the consequences of getting caught. Lying to immigration officers is a slippery slope.

Length of stay

You're not allowed to stay forever in a country. Not even as a Schengen-citizen within Schengen. The maximum length of your stay depends on the country you visit, your nationality, the purpose of your stay (ie the visa). Countries with good relationships average around 90 days on visa exemption or tourist basis.

Visa overstay

Overstaying a visa a criminal offense
When you stay longer than your permitted time, you've overstayed your visa. This is a punishable offense, but enforcement and consequence vary. As far as I've read, in most cases you'll get a fine. But deportation or jail time is not off the table. And then there's countries where you absolutely don't want to overstay, for instance Singapore, where on top of jail time, you'll receive a minimum of three strokes with a cane.

Visa overstays are sometimes permitted in exceptional circumstances, for instance hospitalization. However, in those circumstances it's always important to familiarize yourself with local laws, notifying the proper authorities and also contacting your travel insurance agency and embassy.

Visa overstays also have the unfortunate consequence of following your records for a very long time. In certain cases you'll never be allowed back into the country in question, and this may also apply to many other countries.

It differs from country to country if the days of arrival and departure are included in the calculation towards your total stay.

Visa running

Visa running is a gray-zone area way to extend your stay
Visa running, or border running, is a commonly applied routine to stay long-term in countries which allow back-to-back visits. Some countries have rules along the lines of "you can visit 90 days within a 180 day period" while others may have a rule named "each visit cannot exceed 90 days".

The latter enables visa running, because under most circumstances you can the leave the country for a very short time and return.

Is visa running legal?

The legality of visa running is in almost any case a gray area question. Some countries have direct laws against it, so those are a definite no-go.

Legality of visa running is a gray area question
In other places visa running is frowned upon, but strictly speaking not wrong. A number of countries will look the other way, and some will strictly enforce their policies. But at the end of the day, visa running isn't a risk-free certainly-legal endeavour.

Another note: While some countries allow back-to-back visits and don't have an official maximum number of days you can visit per year, they might definitely have an unofficial one which will be enforced.

But no matter the country you're always running a risk. There's generally speaking no reason to stay long-term in a country as a visitor - and that's exactly why countries have a maximum length on tourist stays. So if you intend to stay there, then go through the proper official process, or do what travellers do: Travel.