The ABCs of getting a visa for your next trip

You’re responsible.

That’s the most important thing to know about your visa. It’s your responsibility — and yours alone.

It doesn’t matter what a travel agent, cruise line, tour operator, or airline tells you. If you don’t have the right visa or transit visa, you can’t go back to them, and ask for a refund because they gave you the incorrect information.

Nor should you rely on anyone but an official government source for accurate and up-to-date information on your paperwork requirements.

Repeat: Please don’t take anyone’s word for it unless they work for the government.

Where can I find that information?

The US State Department. The State Department, the government agency that deals with foreign affairs, has a website that is widely regarded as the final authority on paperwork requirements for Americans going overseas. It’s also a useful resource for information about security, and the political climate in a foreign country.

A foreign embassy or consulate. The embassy of a country you intend to visit also has authoritative information on visa and passport requirements. If you’re applying for a visa, you will need to do so through an embassy or consulate. (Note: there should not be conflicts between the information on the State Department site and the requirements of an embassy, but in the unlikely event that there is, you should endeavor to meet both requirements. That’s because American customs officials will be looking to meet their requirements when you cross the border, while officials from the other country will be looking to meet theirs.)

An official tourism website. Some state-run tourism sites will also have general information on requirements, but they can be the most vague and least reliable. Certainly, if push comes to shove at the border, it may be difficult to show someone a printout made from a tourism website as evidence you should be let into the country.

So how do you get a visa? It depends where you’re visiting.

For most countries, you can apply for a visa at any of their foreign embassies. Some countries require you apply at their embassy in your country. Most visas can be processed by mail. For example, Australia only requires you to fill out a form online and pay $25 by credit card.

The less touristy a destination, the more complex the process tends to be. If you’re traveling somewhere exotic, you might want to contact a visa service to make sure the process goes smoothly and the paperwork is valid.

Another popular kind of visa that might apply to your trip is known as a transit visa. Some countries allow for short transit visas which you stay in a country for a few days without applying for a visa. In order to get one, you have to show proof of an outward ticket.

For example, you can get a 72-hour transit visa for Russia if you arrive in St. Petersburg by boat. Again, check with the country’s embassy to find out if a transit visa is available and if it’s a better option for your trip.

You may need more than just a visa to enter another country. Some countries, notably in Africa, require proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination. If you visit these countries, you need to have the document with you when you enter. For a complete list of health requirements, consult the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention page on health and visas.

Whether you’re crossing the border into Canada or embarking on an around-the-world adventure, you have to line up your paperwork well in advance of your trip. Make sure you have all the necessary visas and permits, and be certain they’re valid for the duration of your voyage.

When it doubt, consult an official source, and don’t rely on someone who may, or may not, know the requirements. Most important, remember that you — and you alone — are responsible for having the right forms filled out.

You can get more information on visas and passport requirements in my new book, How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.

If a travel agent gives you inaccurate information about visa requirements, should he or she be responsible for any consequences?

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