Visas can be one of a traveller’s worse nightmares. Bureaucratic labyrinths, restricted borders or changing regulations are just some of the obstacles that one may find along the way. But if you are reading this post it is probably because you are considering a long and leisure journey, so before you start to curse over the snags of your travel, just think for a minute of those who are not lucky enough to be just an embassy and a few photocopies away from reaching their own destination. I still walk to each consulate with a knot in my stomach, wondering if we got all the requirements correct and to each border hoping that we won’t be turned back but, in perspective, our little travel worries are mere nuances, and although it is healthy to keep dreaming of a border-less world, for the moment (while trying to sort all the paperwork) one better face the travel visas as a game than as a burden, and somehow enjoy the treasure hunt for the stickers that will open the doors to each territory on your way.
This is a short guide to the different ways of getting the visas for a long-term travel, answering the questions that we are often asked about those who are planning their route. We hope you find it useful, and if you have tips that may help other travellers, please do leave a comment below.
Note: this posts is concerned with human visas. For travellers of other species, you can find a little bit of info in this post we wrote about pets and their passports
Do I need a passport and visa to travel?
Many people write us asking which documents they need to travel. The answer is: it depends. One does not usually need a passport to travel in his home country, to walk out of town or to visit the nearest mountain. Within the EU and in other areas of the world, one does not even need passport or visas to cross many borders. But if you are thinking of something else than a weekend abroad, and would like to go on a long (or very long) journey, a bit of research will be needed on your side. The travel documents that each person needs to travel to a specific destination depend on where one comes from and where one wishes to go.
The best ways to find out if you need a passport and visa for each specific place are:
- Visa HQ. Usually accurate and up to date)
- Visa Mapper. With a good interactive map to entertain yourself with, specially if you are starting to dream your travel. How many places can you visit visa-free?
- Wikipedia – visa requirements. We are not sure about the accuracy of all entries, but it can give you an idea of visa requirements for each country.
- The Embassies and Consulates of each country.
Taking visas into account when planning a travel
Our overland route from Bulgaria to India was not simply influenced but totally determined by the availability, length and requirements (including costs) of visas for the countries we crossed along the way. When we were only thinking, planning and dreaming of a long journey, we (well, the bureaucratic rat in this couple) complied a huge excel sheet with all the possible routes, countries, visas, length of stay, requirements and costs – which, by the way, were different for each of us, as we hold different passports. We would not recommend you to do the same. As we will explain just below, the bureaucracy and costs of a specific visa for one specific country very much change depending on where you are actually applying for it. And we found out that along the way some travel options in our list would turn out to be temporarily off limits (i.e. entering Afghanistan, as it was elections time) while others would magically open up (i.e. crossing from Myanmar to India overland, which was not possible when we started the journey).
The conclusion is: map your options, know your routes, and take the visa limitations in mind, but forget about having everything tied up, and if you are into excel, or if (like to Marta) seeing all the info structured in a single place helps you visualize the travel – then go for the detailed spreadsheet, but keep in mind that it will probably end up turning into a souvenir stored in the forgotten folder of “getting ready for the travel”. For better results, keep on reading more practical tips and tricks on sorting visas that we learnt along the way.
Another thing to consider when planning your long route is that most visas need to be obtained in capitals or large cities with consular offices. If you are the type of traveller that escapes such crowded places, maybe the best thing to do is trying to fit them into your schedule in a way that they feel like a rest from the hardships of the travel – in the cities it is easier to find proper super markets, vegetarian restaurants, good showers and even friends (that speak some language you know). After long days of dusty roads we actually learnt to appreciate places like Tehran or Almaty or Bangkok, really. It is not so bad to roam a city from time to time.
How to apply for visas for a long journey?
Should I organize all visas and permits before I leave my home-country? Or can I get them on the road? How long do visas last for? What if my passport gets full along the way? So many questions and one simple answer: most of the things can be sorted along the way. But note that we say “most”, not all, and just keep a few things in mind when arranging your travel itinerary and documents:
You will need a valid passport.
To apply for visas it is usually required that your passport has a validity of at least 6 months ahead, and a few empty pages. If you are about to start your journey and realize that your passport will expire earlier than you plan to be back home, or if you have just a few pages left, it’s pretty logic to advise you to get a new one before you go. If you are already on the way or far from home, you can probably get a new passport in the nearest consular office of your home country, so the best thing you can do to find out about the process is to contact them.
Some nationalities allow travellers to hold two passports, and some people may have double nationality. If you are one of the few with such a luck, make use of it, and apply for your two passports, as they may help you sort some of the visa issues you will encounter along the way and some countries have cheaper visa regimes than others.
Where to apply for each visa.
This is the key to building your itinerary, and here are the few things we usually take into account when thinking of where and when to apply for each visa and travel permit:
1. Countries that require application at home. There are a few countries (like Pakistan) that require travellers to apply for visas in their own home countries (or country of residency), and it is important to take them into account, and mark them bright with a fluorescent marker in your map or itinerary, as they will condition your journey. In this post you can read a bit about how visas shape your travel. And in summary what matters is: do I really need to cross that specific country? If I get the visa in advance – how much time do I have to enter the country before it expires? (yes, visas have expiration dates, just like yogurt) AND Would I be able to reach that country in the time that the visa gives me?
The visa for Pakistan needs to be applied for at home. One needs to enter Pakistan max. 3 months after its issue date. If one is travelling from Europe, s/he will have 3 months to cross all countries along the way and reach Pakistan.
If you are the lucky holder of two passports, we have heard of travellers that have sent one of them home to arrange this visa, so in such cases you can check if it is possible for you to do the same at the time of your travel.
UPDATE: A traveller commented in facebook that some consulates may issue a Pakistani visa with up to 6 months time before the entry date. We have not tried, and do not know the traveller personally, but you can certainly try (and let us know:))
2. Countries that allow application (almost) anywhere. Most countries allow you to apply for their visa in any Embassy or Consular office they have in a third country. We did not have any visas before we left home, and applied for the Iranian Visa in Georgia, for the all Central Asian and Chinese visa in Iran, for India in Myanmar, etc. There are only a couple of things that you will probably need to take into account for most countries:
- Is there a consular office of that country in the country that I plan to visit just before it? Or should I apply for the visa one of two countries before? (and therefore…how long to I have to reach its border?)
- Do the fees OR application process OR allowed length of stay vary depending on which country I apply? Along the way we found out that regulations do change a lot from one Embassy to the next, usually depending on the bilateral relations between the country you wish to go to, and the country where you are at.
We applied for a Chinese visa in Tehran when we heard that obtaining it in Kyrgyzstan (the country from which we were planning to cross into China) would cost us at least 4 times more and many troubles. This meant, though, that we had 3 months to enter China since the visa issue date in Iran, and therefore less time to roam around Central Asia at ease. Finding the information is the key, afterwards you take your decisions depending on how you like your travel to look like.
3. Countries that allow visa on arrival. Many countries allow travellers to obtain visa at the border, and in these cases one only needs to worry about a few things:
- Is the on-arrival visa available in land border crossings or only at airports?
- Which documents do I need to present at the border? (just my passport, or also photographs and photocopies?)
- How much does the visa on arrival cost? And in which currency should I pay? Can I pay by card? (to make sure to exchange money in advance)
- Is the visa cheaper or does it last longer if I apply beforehand? Sometimes visa on arrival lasts for just a few weeks, while one could get a few months visa for the same price if applying at a consular office (like it was the case with Thailand when we visited the country in 2014). It is worth checking these details and they will greatly influence your journey.
4. Visa-free countries. They exist, check the links we gave you above to see where you could go without any visa worries. And then just make sure you know if:
- Is a passport needed for your specific nationality or can you travel with an ID
- Does the visa-free regime really apply to your nationality? The fact that another traveller told you that s/he went somewhere without visa does not mean it is the same for you. Boris and I often have different visa regimes and costs, and we come from different counties, even if both are in the EU.
How to find out about visa requirements for (and in) each country.
Some of the sources that we use to finding info about the best places to apply for each visa are:
- The websites of embassies in each country (they usually list their own requirements). Handle with care, they may list requirements that they actually do not finally ask for.
- Caravanistan (for all Central Asia, Iran, China). A very good forum, and all updates from travellers included in the country profiles. A real treasure chest.
- Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum. Pretty useful threads with latest comments on whether all requirements are actually implemented. But make sure to look for current info (visa regulations change often, the anecdotes of travellers in 2002 won’t be of much help)
- Other travellers. They are usually pretty good sources, when they are reliable. In any case make sure to double-check the info for yourself, as the conditions that apply to people of different nationalities may not correspond with your particular case.
How to deal with special visa requirements.
While most of the visa requirements are pretty standard: a form, copy of your passport and two photographs, there are times when things get trickier (or more fun, depending on your perspective). Some of the things that you might be asked to present are (this list is not exhaustive. Do check with each consulate before applying):
- Letters of invitation. A formal document “inviting” you to stay in the country, which can either be obtained from a friend in the country (although usually through a long and complicated process) or through a travel agency (for a price).
- Letter from your Embassy. A formal document issued by any consular office from your home country confirming that you are you, and your passport belongs to you. Pretty easy to obtain (sometimes for a small fee) if your country as an Embassy or consulate in the place where you are in.
- Itinerary. A list of the places one plans to visit. If you do not have one yet, it is as easy as looking at the map (or picking your preferred route from your guidebook) and listing the main cities and towns along your way, usually date by date.
- Hotel bookings. If you are like us and do not like to be tied up in advance, the best is to use booking.com, print the proof of booking, and cancel it if finally you do not plan to stay in that specific place. Note: be kind to the hotel owners, if you really do not plan to use the accommodation you have booked, do not wait long to cancel it, as they are reserving it for you.
- Bank statements. Yep, sometimes they may go as far as that. Keeping some cash safe in the bank is useful for these cases (and for travel emergencies)
- Visa fees specifics. Make sure you know well how you will be expected to pay at the particular embassy where you are applying for visa. Sometimes it is in a nearby bank, sometimes in cash, sometimes in new dollar notes… a small detail that may cost you an extra visit to the Embassy.
- Restricted area permits. Certain countries require travellers to get additional permits to travel certain areas or, in the case of Myanmar, to cross some of it land borders. In the resources mentioned above one can usually find out such information.
- Entry forbidden for holders of other visas or permits. Due to international politics there are countries that do not welcome travellers who have previously visited specific countries or territories (i.e. Iran – Israel, Azerbaijan – Nagorno Karabach…). The only thing you can do is informing yourself and choosing which places you want to visit in the near future. If you are the lucky holder of two passports you might be able to play with them, but keep in mind that even if you have a valid visa, sometimes border officers may deny you entry to their country if they find any proof of you having visited their “forbidden” land. But well, each traveller should asses his/her border crossing possibilities, so we just wish you all the best.
- Other (random) visa requirements. Colour photocopies, square photos, double-sided printed application forms, specific opening and closing times… just like with the notes, we can only advice you to try to gather all the info beforehand, to avoid wasting too much time visiting consular offices instead of touristic landmarks or wonderful bazaars…
How much are my long-term-travel visas going to cost?
This really depends on your itinerary and the visa regulations that apply to your nationality in each of the countries you wish to visit. If you have a tiny budget it might be wise to focus on countries that you can visit visa-free; there are surely some, and you might be surprised how many wonders are hidden just behind the nearest border.
For a long journey the scenery is different: you will probably not be able to avoid having to get a few visas. In this case one can choose to focus on areas or continents that are favourable in visa-terms OR make a rough search and calculation of all possible visa costs (this is what I did) and budget for visas separately from all other travel costs. A tip for visa-cost-planning: count on the higher costs possible per country, if visas turn out to be cheaper you will enjoy having a bit extra cash for a beer by the seaside or to visit one more country.
While in India, we were often pointed our by young people, that we could travel because all borders were open for us. While we agree that an EU passport opens many doors (not all) we could not help but commenting back that they can easily cross to nearby countries that are restricted for us like Bhutan or to areas of their own country, India, for which we need much more expensive permits than locals (i.e. Arunachal Pradesh). The conclusion is that one might be able to find interesting destinations within the restrictions that apply to his/her particular passport.
You may need it more than once. And whatever the bureaucratic traps, do not worry, visas are (at least for the moment) part of the journey. If you have some useful general tips, please share them with us for the benefit of all.