¨Of all the books in the world, the best are found in the pages of a passport.¨
Note: These comments are guidelines only. Governments change the entrance requirements all the time, and regulations can be confusing. Please check with the consulate of the country you are visiting, guidebooks, your home country’s travel advisories, and/or online travel forums for more up-to-date and accurate information.
What is a Visa?
The term visa sometimes confuses because technically, all a visa means is permission to enter a country. Most of the time, tourist visas are issued to US and Canadian citizens by an immigration official upon arrival in another country. However, sometimes the tourist visas must be received in advance from the country’s consulate (often only available in your home country).
Occasionally you will read that a tourist visa is required to enter a country (particularly on the consular website). Then, find that, in reality, you can get that visa on arrival. Sometimes the visa is issued after you made a small payment on arrival. (Ten years ago, this was the case when I entered Nicaragua. The visa was, in reality, a $5 entrance fee).
Traditionally when guidebooks and tourist-oriented websites say that you need a visa to enter a country, they mean you need to get permission before entering the country. (You get permission by applying in person, online, or by mail at the country’s consulate or embassy).
Most of the time, consulates and embassies are in the capital of your home country or the nearest big city to your hometown. Often people are denied access to their flight because they don’t have the right visa.
When Do You Need A Tourist Visa?
Citizens of most developed countries (including the USA and Canada) do not need a visa in advance to visit most countries in Europe and Latin America as a tourist.
The immigration official will give you permission (sometimes called a visa) to enter after showing them your passport (and any required entry forms) and answering their questions. You will get the required entry forms on the plane (if applicable) or at the check-in counter for your flight. (Normally, immigration officials will ask one or two questions, like how long will you stay in the country, and that is all). (More information about airport immigration).
As a whole, most US and Canadian citizens will need to get permission (typically called a visa) in their home country or online before entering the following countries:
- Most large countries – China, India, and Russia.
- Many countries that do not receive many tourists– i.e., most sub-Saharan African countries (South Africa is a notable exception) and some former Soviet republics (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc.).
- Most Southeast Asia and South Asian countries (including Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The most notable exception is Thailand).
That said, always check to make sure an advanced visa is required or not before travel. Probably the easiest place to find out if a visa is required for US citizens is the Country Information Pages on the US Department of State website. (Consult here for Canadians).
What is an Electronic Travel Authorization?
In recent years, many developed countries require citizens from other developed countries to get a ¨electronic travel authorization¨ (ETA) before entering their country. This is extremely common for entering the US, Canada, and Australia. European citizens from Schengen area countries need ETAs to visit the US and Canada. (One notable exception; Canada and the USA do not require the ETAs for each others’ citizens).
For most people, electronic travel visas are relatively easy to obtain. You simply:
- Go to a website (https://www.eta.homeaffairs.gov.au/ETAS3/etas for travel to Australia for US and Canadian citizens).
- Pay a small fee (around $30 US).
- Fill out a short online form.
- Wait to receive an email confirmation a couple of hours later.
No photos, scanned copies of your passport, etc., are usually required. (It may or may not be necessary to print out a copy of the authorization to enter the country).
In January 2022, US and Canadian citizens will be required to get Electronic Travel Authorization to go to most European countries. Thankfully, since these countries are part of the Schengen Treaty, you will only need to apply once to travel around most of Europe. (Here is a map of the Schengen area https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/visa-policy/schengen_visa_en).
Some Additional Posts About Travel Requirements
- Tourist Visas: How the US and Canadians Citizens Can Avoid Problems Entering and Staying For a Long-Time in a Foreign CountryHow long do USA and Canadian citizens usually have permission to travel in another country? What can you do if you want to stay longer? What are some other problems that might cause problems when you try to enter another country?
- An Easy Guide to Tourist Visas: What to Do If You Have to Apply In Advance For Tourist VisasApplying for a tourist visa in advance is usually not a big problem unless you need it in a hurry. Here are some tips to avoid potential problems for US and Canadian citizens if they need to get a visa in advance.
- Electronic Travel Authorizations and Tourist Visas: Answers to 3 Typical QuestionsFind out when you will be required to get a visa before traveling to another country. (Most are issued on arrival). Also, learn about electronic travel authorizations.
- Passport 101: Easy Answers to Frequently Asked QuestionsA series of tips about how to apply, replace, or renew your USA or Canadian Passport.
- Airport 101: Avoid Immigration, Customs, Airline Check-In, and Security ProblemsWithout a doubt, one of the most frustrating parts of living as a fifty-plus nomad is dealing with airports. In my five years traveling around the world, I encountered several issues I did not anticipate including finding the right terminal, not having proof of onward passage, and unexpected fees. This post helps you avoid some of my mistakes.