What to Know about Visas

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If you want to travel outside your native country, you may need to obtain a visa. The more than 270 countries in the world that provide visas offer thousands of different kinds, and navigating them can be a little tricky. Even infants may require visas so that countries can track who is entering and exiting their borders and ensure that no one immigrates illegally.

Tourist visas break down into a few categories. In the countries that require them, you can usually obtain a “visa on arrival” at the airport immediately after you land. Electronic visas are simple in that the government of your destination country assigns you a visitor’s number but little else; you can typically apply for a number online. In some countries, however, you must apply for your visa through a government-accredited travel agency or a designated consulate. And when traveling to countries with the most stringent regulations, you must present a letter of invitation from someone in the country you wish to visit, or apply for permits to travel to certain areas.

The difficulty of traveling to a particular country can vary dramatically based on your citizenship or the country that issued your passport. For example, U.S. passport holders may travel to over 160 countries without a visa, although there are limits on their length of stay. Citizens of most other countries may travel visa-free to fewer countries. In addition, some countries in the world waive visa requirements when you travel across certain national borders. Europe has a region called the Schengen Area, which consists of 25 countries that have signed a treaty to function essentially as one country in terms of international travel. So you can fly to France, get a visa there, and then travel to Switzerland, Germany, and even as far as Poland without getting a new visa.

Before you leave on an international trip, you’ll need to check the visa requirements of your destination country. United States passport holders can visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs website at travel.state.gov for country-specific information. Make sure to check out visa requirements well in advance of your trip as well, because some countries with elaborate visa procedures can take a very long time to process applications.

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