Do you need a visa? Here’s the final word

If you’ve traveled to overseas destinations, you probably already know that you need a passport in order to legally enter another country and to return to your home country. But do you know if you need a visa to travel to the country you’ve chosen? Do you know how to learn about the requirements or whose responsibility it is to know the requirements?

We’ve had several cases recently where the travelers were confused about visa requirements, and these are problems we can’t solve. So here’s how to protect yourself from a missed vacation and lost money that you can’t recover.

In the latest incarnation of this recurring problem, a traveler relied on CheapOair to determine whether his girlfriend needed a transit visa before purchasing an airline ticket. As the writer, Jennifer Finger, points out, it was not the responsibility of CheapOair to provide the needed information on whether a visa was needed.

Why can’t we rely on an online travel agency to provide us with visa information?

In short, there are currently 195 countries in the world, which means that each one of those countries likely has entry and exit requirements for the other 194 countries. In almost all of these countries, citizens from some countries benefit from a visa waiver program and do not need a visa if their stay is less than a specified number of days, while citizens from some other countries need a visa for a stay of any duration. There are also countries that prohibit any entry by citizens of specific countries, regardless of their visa status, and countries that have different rules for different people who are all visiting from the same country.

Confused yet? Imagine how confusing it must be for agents who are selling tickets to citizens from a variety of countries, traveling to a variety of other countries. There is no worldwide database that would all an agent to simply enter the country of citizenship and the country someone is visiting and have a program spit out the correct answer. The U.S. alone has 185 different visas, so it’s much more complicated than simply knowing the countries involved.

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Can we rely on a traditional travel agent to provide us with visa information?

Some travel agents may be willing to do the research for you, especially if it is a simple case where you are living in your country of citizenship, traveling to a country with a good political relationship with your home country. But if your situation is complicated, like that of the newlyweds who recently posted in our forums, an agent may not wish to be liable for any mistakes that could be made unless he or she is also an expert in visa requirements.

Even in a case where an agent is willing to do the research for you, it’s still best to be familiar with the requirements — and read everything. While working for a river cruise company in Southeast Asia, I once welcomed a group of 10 travelers to Vietnam to start a 15-day tour with their travel agent. She had researched the visa that was needed for the group and obtained the correct one, but then instructed everyone to paste the visas into their passports. Unfortunately, the visas needed to be kept with the passports, but not attached to them — pasting them into the passports invalidated them. Had the agent or the guests read the small print on the visas, they would have known this was not the proper way to handle the visas. The guests were fined and had to purchase new visas, which the agent reimbursed, but the authorities could have prevented the entire group from entering the country.

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Where would I find the information I need to determine if I need a visa?

I am a U.S. citizen, and the first place I look is the U.S. Department of State website for both U.S. citizens traveling abroad and foreign nationals who want to travel to the U.S. I also check the website for the country where I plan to travel, to obtain visa applications and additional information on payment, if required in advance.

Had another couple planning a honeymoon trip consulted a professional visa service, they might have learned that additional documentation could be requested when they tried to enter Mexico.

The other option, which I highly recommend for countries with complicated visa requirements and applications, is to use a professional visa service. These companies will assist you with completing the paperwork, but you still need to know which countries require you to have a visa. You also have to provide accurate personal information, along with your travel dates and locations. If you provide false or incomplete information, the company will not take responsibility for any errors.

And there’s the magic word: responsibility. The person who is ultimately responsible for the accuracy and validity of your travel documents is… wait for it… you.

It doesn’t matter if CheapOair told you a transit visa wasn’t needed.

It doesn’t matter if a travel agent told you to paste a visa into your passport.

It doesn’t matter if Apple Vacations never told you a visa would be required on your trip.

You are responsible for your own documentation:

  • You are responsible to ensure that the name on your passport matches the name on your visa and the name on the air ticket.
  • You are responsible for ensuring that the dates on your visa and the dates on your tickets are correct.
  • You are responsible for keeping your documentation with you.
  • You’re responsible for the consequences of not being informed about the requirements and for not being able to produce the correct documentation.
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The added benefit of being informed about your requirements: If an airline tries to prevent you from boarding, claiming you don’t have the proper documentation, you will know enough about the regulations to advocate yourself and hopefully board the plane.

When I was flying to Myanmar a few years ago, immediately after the country started allowing “visa on arrival,” staff from Vietnam Airlines tried to prevent me from checking in for my flight, claiming that Myanmar required a visa before boarding a flight. I was not only able to show them the website I had bookmarked on my phone, I also had a printout of the pages that addressed the new policy.

In the end, the choice is yours to become an informed traveler who knows the requirements and obtains the correct documents, or to remain uninformed and risk spending thousands of dollars on a vacation you never get to take because you either can’t be allowed on a flight or immigration immediately sends you back home. If you choose to be the latter and lose a vacation because you didn’t take responsibility for ensuring you obtained the correct documentation, we cannot help you in your quest to recover your money.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans.

  • Noah Kimmel

    Skyteam has a good web interface to TIMATIC – which can help tell you if you need a visa.

  • sirwired

    And don’t forget the basic advice of “always have 6 months left on your passport at the time you’ll be leaving for your trip”. SO MANY countries have minimum validity requirements that you might as well treat your passport as expiring 6 months earlier than it actually does.

  • Alan Gore

    Would TIMATIC have carried the right answers to all of the situations raised in the article? If this is going to be the standard we need it to be available as an app so we can not only check visa and passport rules for a country before we go, but have detail pages be downloadable and storable on your device so that if a behind-the-times airline agent tries to prevent us from traveling in a situation where we have previously verified the rules (as in the article) we can display it as proof of compliance.

  • Noah Kimmel

    TIMATIC is owned by IATA and is the industry standard software that most airlines use. It is paid for carriers, but many do put it out to customers similar to the skyteam link above. Note that it is only as good as the inputs to it – you have to put in data accurately to get an accurate result. I am not aware of any app implementation of it, but might be a good idea – charge a dollar an app to cover cost of timatic subscription.

    Other options out there include IDT (immigration determination tool) by Fragoman that does let you print a result, but it is also a paid product that corporations usually use for their business travelers. It is more comprehensive, advising not just if you need a visa, but the type based on a series of questions about not just your travel plans, but your activities.

  • Bobby Dale

    Your passport must be valid for one day more than the visa you will be issued upon arrival (for arrival). If you are to be issued a 270 day visa than 180 days on your passport will not suffice. If you get a two year visa, student or work for example, then you will need that much time on your passport.

  • sirwired

    Well, yes, certainly the specific requirements of your visa override a general guideline; I was referring more towards the “If you ever want to travel anywhere, have at least six months left.” rule of thumb.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, most US citizens will not be going places or staying there long enough that a separate visa would be required, only a stamp in the passport on arrival which would cover their 2 week or so stay..

  • MarkKelling

    Do you believe that any airline employee once they make up their mind you don’t qualify to board the plane is going to be swayed into letting you board if you show them something you printed off the internet?

    I would hope that the gate agents reverifying paperwork at boarding time will be fully aware of what is needed for the flight they are boarding. Paperwork requirements don’t change suddenly where there is not enough time to educate those doing the boarding.

  • Alan Gore

    The article cited exactly this happening – pax presents online reference to a recent change in visa requirements after a gate agent tried to tell him he was ineligible. But what I have in mind is not waving some random web page at an airline counter, but a display from an app whose word is accepted as official, and TIMATIC appears to be the best candidate service to build one around.

  • Bill___A

    You probably know very well that they don’t keep up with it very well. Showing them proof gives them a chance to reflect upon the fact that things may have changed and will also help them realize the airline will be 100% liable for any increased expenses. However, if you don’t make them aware, then there’s less of a chance.

  • y_p_w

    Not necessarily. I’ve heard that China now has 10 year visitor visas and I know someone who got one. The passport will expire before the visa. They can be used even if in an expired or cancelled passport. They just require a valid passport along with the visa in the old passport. Also they require at least one year on the passport before expiration.

  • PsyGuy

    YOU, you, you, you, you, you. Do it yourself, honestly no one can help you, because i have yet to find a visa processor that will take responsibility (meaning liability) for expensive international travel tickets when they make a mistake or things change. Every single one of them has some legalease that dissolves them of responsability if you are denied boarding or entry.

  • PsyGuy

    Assuming it’s updated and correct. Even the department of state gets it wrong sometimes.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, because employees have supervisors, and really most of them, the vast majority of them wouldn’t know what a visa is supposed to look like. If all else fails photoshop a visa image onto some blank sticker paper put it in your passport and figure it out when you get their. In almost all instances there’s a cheaper solution once in country that will fix the problem.

  • PsyGuy

    Even the department of states web pages aren’t official, no agency or organizations claim supersedes that of a country’s immigration agency.

  • PsyGuy

    Your passport must be valid for however long the immigration officer of the country you are attempting to enter thinks.

  • Lindabator

    CIBT is a great service, with plenty of visa information – as well as passport requirements, and even health information

  • Lindabator

    timatic is not that specific, and is based on information for travellers FROM the originating country of issue – so US sites refer to US citizens, Canadian sites rerer to Canadian citizens, etc — which is why if you have a special circumstance, might not be effective

  • Lindabator

    an airline will not fly you into the country without the proper paperwork for you to “fix” once you are there, because transporting you with improper paperwork is a $10,000.00 fine per passenger

  • Lindabator

    not necessairly

  • PsyGuy

    Hence the need for photoshop and sticker paper, literally print your own visa. That’s the great thing about paperwork, it’s just paper.

  • Kairho

    It’s not always “just paper.” Some visas have holograms and other anti-counterfeiting measures. Gate agents are aware of these and if someone’s “visa” doesn’t look right that passenger will be waving bye-bye to the plane through the window.

  • Kairho

    Timatic requires inputting one’s citizenship and provides info on all from/to combinations.

  • Bobby Dale

    China has a 10 year visa which expires with the passport to which it is attached. You must have 6 months left on your passport in order to enter the country.

  • y_p_w

    It doesn’t expire with the passport. This is via a reciprocal agreement between the US and China. If the visa is in an expired or cancelled passport, it can be presented along with a valid passport.!china-visa/c1nj9
    Most U.S. passport holders eligible for Chinese short term business (M) and tourist (L) visas will be issued multiple-entry visas valid for 10 years. In order to be eligible for 10 year visas, US passport holders must have more than 1 year validity remaining on their passport. US passport holders with 1 year or less remaining on their passport will be issued a China visa with less than 1 year validity. The Chinese Consulate will make the final decision about the length of the visa. Once a 10 year visa has been issued, the validity of the visa does not expire if the holder renews his/her passport. The visa holder can travel carrying the old passport with valid Chinese visa along with the new passport. The cost for the visas will remain the same.

    There are a few countries that allow a visa in an otherwise invalid passport to be used, including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and India.

  • joycexyz

    I’m shocked (shocked!) to hear that people need to be responsible for their own documentation. Will they ever learn? But think of all the tales of woe we’d be missing on this site.

  • Mark

    I came here to say this. I am very, very surprised that I got to the bottom of the article with no mention of IATA’s TIMATIC – or even a suggestion to just check with the embassy of the country you’re visiting.

  • Michael__K

    Source? Where are you pulling that figure and statement from?

    According to IATA (the industry lobby group) the average fine is $3,500 per passenger. And in many cases that fine they cite is never levied or applicable at all. For example, since United Airlines vs. Brien (2009), airlines are NOT fined for carrying passengers without proper documentation to the US.

  • y_p_w

    Since this is a general article I don’t think there are absolutes, even for US citizens. Australia even requires visas for US citizens. Many countries grant temporary visas or visitor permits at the port of entry.

  • PsyGuy

    Sure some do, and some don’t, some have foil and other authenticity technology embedded in them. I’ve never had a gate agent check my visa, they are too busy swiping BP’s across the scanner. The only time my visa has been checked is at the counter, and many of those counter agents wouldn’t know what an actual visa looks like. Even if you are right and you don’t get to board it’ no worse a position than showing up at the airport without the right documentation, you still aren’t going to be flying.

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