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. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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