2017 marks a travel first for me: getting a visa. Up until now, I haven’t traveled to a country that requires one. My work trip to China is changing that. In order for me to attend an excursion to Suzhou, I had to apply for a visa. I had to fill out and mail in paperwork for review and then wait on getting an approval (which I succeeded).
Overall, a visa is a government document that temporarily gives you the permission to be in the country you’re visiting. It grants you entry for a certain period of time.
Depending on what country you’re a citizen of, and where you’re planning to visit, visa requirements can vary. For example, as of this writing, U.S. citizens have to obtain a visa in order to enter and exit destinations like India, China, Russia, Turkey, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, some Asian countries like Bhutan, and most African nations. Some visas can be acquired on arrival in the destination, others might be done ahead of time through an online processing system, and others require sending in documents like your passport to embassies. Yet they all can involve paying fees.
Don’t let the process scare you. With the right approach and application materials, a visa application can be completed easily and effectively. Here are five general tips to keep in mind when applying for a visa.
Check on your destination’s visitor status. Visa needed or not, always research and confirm what your country of interest requires for visitors. Oftentimes, if a visa is required, you’re the one required to obtain it. And you have to make sure it’s done right. Check what categories your visit falls under and what your length of stay will be permitted. In some cases, based on politics or other reasoning, there are additional requirements such as written proof of a hotel stay or vaccination records. Also, your visa application might ask for specifics like a certain category your visit falls under – tourist, business, etc. – so see what your type falls under.
Read and re-read your requirements. Little mistakes in your paperwork can cost you in many ways, so thoroughly go through documents and their directions. Along with obtaining the right form(s), scan them with your eyes very carefully, so that you understand everything from what size your headshot should be, to what additional documents you need to submit (most likely your passport). Print out more than one copy, so if you can “practice” filling out a test form and then have the other one as the final version. Or if it’s done online, carefully fill out forms or get a copy or get screenshots to refer to as a guide beforehand.
Give yourself extra time. Procrastinators, be forwarned. Usually, visas can take about a week or so for processing, but waiting until the last minute to submit an application could cause you some agita over getting approved in time. Plus, in the case your paperwork has errors or other problems come up like slow service, you want some buffer time to have these issues solved. And if you need your passport for something else in the meantime – like a pre-trip trip – then you’d definitely be hustling. Also, submitting your paperwork is often done by mail, so you don’t want to have to rush to extra expedite your envelope. Or, if possible, see about going to a consulate.
Invest in a quality headshot. While major drugstore chains offer passport/visa photo services, perhaps think about spending a little extra on getting your headshot. Headshots for China visas have a unique set of measurements, so I chose to go to a photography studio to get it right. And make sure you also understand the guidelines for your pic so you can explain them to your picture-taker, if needed. My first photographer decided to touch up my tired-looking face (A BIG NO NO!) so much that I went somewhere else for a retake (which was accepted despite my weary appearance).
Consider using a visa processing service. If filling out detailed forms sounds daunting, don’t be shy about getting, and paying for, help. Visa processing/application centers deal with these applications daily and can guide you through the process. For my China visa, I used CIBTvisas, which has offices in major U.S. cities like New York. For a processing fee, with additional options, I was able to speak to their customer service department have reps by phone, mail in my documents for review and submission, and then opt to have my visa picked up in person or mailed back to me.
Have you applied for a travel visa before? Tell me about your experience in the comments section.