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Travelers: Visas are Important! Tips on Getting Them

The accompanying (rather unrelated) photos for this article are street scenes from Hanoi, Vietnam (particularly motorcycle sights, which never cease to amaze me) and views of Hanoi’s Temple of Literature.

Shaun’s head was hung low over his coconut juice when I met up with him at the restaurant. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did your lady friend fly in yet?”

Riding to work in Vietnam by motorcycle.
Riding to work in Vietnam by motorcycle.

Shaun shook his head in woe. “She woke up this morning and realized she couldn’t take the flight to Vietnam because she’d forgotten to apply for her tourist visa.”


I didn’t realize until I started this worldwide jaunt that a traveler must always keep visas in mind.

The Temple of Literature in Vietnam.
The Temple of Literature in Vietnam.

Some regions are easy. Americans can enter the European Union for three months without a visa. In Thailand, American tourists can enter for free, but be careful: you get 30 days if you come in by air, but a paltry 15 days if you arrive by bus. Some tourists to Thailand combat this by doing “visa runs” to a bordering country every time their visa runs out (cross the border and come back to get another 15 or 30 days).

Beautiful Temple of Literature.
Beautiful Temple of Literature.

Others (like me, today!) go in advance to the Thai embassy in their current country to arrange for a 60-day extended visa. You do need to leave them your passport, a photo, and your proof of onward travel (ex: flight itinerary), but it’s free! I did a nice little jig today when I realized I could re-pocket the $40 I’d budgeted for the visa. Fancy haircut time!

The whole family on a motorbike in Vietnam.
The whole family on a motorbike in Vietnam.

Other countries offer 30-day visas for a charge on arrival at their land borders and airports, but this is not without its snags.

This type of visa can also be arranged in advance, but it’s easy enough to get them on arrival if you do it right. Research beforehand, but most cost $20 to $40.

The Temple of Literature gate.
The Temple of Literature gate.

And then there are those tricky countries like Brazil and Vietnam. True to its proud, protectionist style, Vietnam demands that you arrange your visa in advance. There ain’t no wimpy visas-on-arrival, punk — Vietnam only wants visitors who plan ahead!

This planning can be done online if you’re arriving by air at , or at a Vietnamese embassy in another country if you’re arriving by land, usually in its capital city.

The courtyard of Vietnam's Temple of Literature.
The courtyard of Vietnam’s Temple of Literature.

Apparently, Cambodia is one of the easiest places to get your Vietnam visa. In Sihanoukville, I handed my hotel clerk-who-is-also-a-travel-agent-like-all-Southeast-Asia-hotel-clerks-are my passport and $45 (it was a steeper price because it was one day rush service), he ran it to a special office, and the next morning he handed my passport back to me with a shiny Vietnamese visa pasted within!

Decorations in the Temple of Literature.
Decorations in the Temple of Literature.

So now you have your visa and you have now entered the country. Woo hoo! But don’t rest easy yet! Clearly mark on your Google Calendar (or other planning device) the date your visa expires, and ensure that you will be out of the country before then. Your passport will be checked when you exit and you’ll have to fork out a fine for each day you overstay your welcome. Verily, that money is better spent on seafood hot-pots.

Isn't Vietnam beautiful?
Isn’t Vietnam beautiful?

In short: make sure to research the visa requirements of your destination country well in advance!

If you don’t, your studly Australian love interest will be left all alone and crying into his coconut juice.


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Friday 16th of July 2010

As a travel agent, I have to concur with Lillie here.

For US citizens, check the US State Dept website, to find the most current entry/exit requirements for every foreign country worldwide. On the homepage, click on "International Travel." The next page has a world map where you can click on the region you are going, which will pop up a drop-down menu with the countries in that region. Find your counrty, click, and inform yourself. Lots of info.

Some countries make it harder than others to obtain visas (Australia = easy, Russia = pain in the butt, etc). Plan ahead, even if your trip is a few months (or more) away.


Friday 16th of July 2010

Oooh, super useful, Drew! I shall bookmark that and refer back to it. Now if only the terminology used on the State Department site was as enjoyable as "Pain in the butt"...

Imported Blogger Comments

Wednesday 26th of May 2010

Adam said... Lillie,

Greets from a feelow travel blog xchanger. While in hanoi, check out Tadioto cafe, 152 Trieu Viet Vong. It's a cool spot, very popular with Hanoi's university/20-something scene. If you can, you should chat with the owner, Nguyen Qui Duc. He's Vietnamese-American writer, translator and journalist, has worked for NPR and other news outlets, and can give a lot of insight into Vietnamese culture and the Hanoi arts scene.

October 26, 2009 4:49 PM

Lillie M. said... I'm researching it right now and it looks fantastic! I'll head there tomorrow after picking up my Thai visa. Thanks for the rec. Hanoi's cafe scene is shockingly cool.

October 26, 2009 4:55 PM

Tracy Barnett said... Thanks for the advice! I'm getting ready for a long overland trip through Latin America and hadn't even thought about the visa issue - just assumed I could pick them up at each border. Thanks for reminding me - you should never assume anything!

October 26, 2009 7:29 PM

Emily @ Maiden Voyage said... Thanks for shedding light on this! I have often wondered about visas and how they affect world travel. I asked Gary of Everything Everywhere what he does about visas, and he says it's really not a big deal since so few countries require them, and for those that do, they aren't too hard to obtain if you know what you're doing (though as you explained, it can be a bummer if you don't plan ahead!). I have heard that for some countries, such as China, it can be really difficult to get a tourist visa. And I know that Russia requires one, as well -- someone I know went on a cruise that stopped in Russia and the only way they could get off and really explore the country was to have a certified tour guide take them -- for some reason that meant that they didn't have to apply for a visa. I don't remember the exact circumstances but it was kind of odd. So yes, always a wise idea to research and prepare before you go, if possible!

October 26, 2009 10:15 PM

Louisa said... Ha. Americans always assume everyone will let them go wherever they want whenever they want. Which I suppose is usually true if they pay enough.

Another useful tip - did you know you can add pages to your passport if you get close to running out? It makes your passport really thick and makes you feel cool.

October 28, 2009 3:12 AM

Akila said... Before we headed off for our trip, we spent an afternoon going through visa requirements for all the countries we are planning (and hoping to) travel in. We thought we had everything covered but New Zealand still messed us up. Apparently, when you enter New Zealand, you must show proof of onward travel --- which means that we spent yesterday morning running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to get our return ticket airline to provide us with proof of onward travel before Virgin would let us on their flight. Lesson learned: always print out complete itineraries before heading to the airport.

October 28, 2009 8:31 AM

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