¨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 Travel Visa?
Traditionally when guidebooks and tourist-oriented websites say that you need a visa, they mean you need to get permission before you can enter 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 onto their flight because they don’t have the right visa.
The term visa sometimes causes confusion because technically, all a visa means is permission to enter a country. As a result, sometimes you will read that a visa is required (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).
When Do You Need A Tourist Visa?
Citizens of most developed countries (including the USA and Canada) do not need a visa to visit most countries in Europe and Latin America as a tourist.
The immigration official gives you permission to enter after you show them your passport (and any required entry forms) and answer their questions. You will get the required entry forms on the plane or at the check-in counter for your flight. (Normally immigration official 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 on-line 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.); and
- 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 a 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).
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 USA do not require the ETAs for each others’ citizens).
For most people, electronic travel visas are relatively easy to obtain. You:
- 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, and
- Wait to receive an email confirmation a couple of hours later.
No photos, scanned copy 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 Fall 2021, 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).