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A Collegiette’s Guide to Travel Visas

Any collegiette preparing to study abroad knows that getting ready to leave the country isn’t all purchasing trendy luggage and learning how to best pack your clothes. The most important (and most headache-inducing) aspect of study abroad is preparing the necessary paperwork to ensure that you won’t be deported upon arrival. Most people know what a passport is, but that isn’t always your golden ticket to go abroad—for many countries, you will also need a travel visa. Read on to learn more about travel visas, and to determine if you need one for your trip—before it’s too late.

What is a Visa?

If you’ve never traveled outside of the country, you’re probably scratching your head and wondering what exactly a travel visa is. According to Passports and Visas, an online resource designed to help aspiring travelers navigate the visa process, a travel visa is “an official government document that temporarily authorizes you to be in the country you are visiting.” Vy Truong, Online Content and PR Marketing Specialist at Contiki Vacations, breaks this point down even further: “The purpose of a visa is to indicate the intention of a foreign citizen who is entering a country, either as a tourist, a business traveler, a student, or a permanent resident,” she says. This means that the definition of a visa is fairly standard across the board regardless of where you are traveling. “Visas are usually required from all citizens who are visiting a foreign country,” says Truong.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and visa requirements are no different. For example, thanks to the Schengen Agreement—a treaty signed in Luxembourg that created a borderless European Union comprised of 26 countries, all of which are listed on the Department of State website—collegiettes visiting the Schengen area for fewer than 90 days in a 180 day period do not require a visa for entry. On the other hand, students planning on staying for longer than three months must wade their way through several different processes before they’re allowed to enter the country of their choice.

How Do I Know If I Need A Visa?

Because the visa process is full of exceptions, knowing whether or not you need to invest the time, money, and energy into obtaining a visa can be difficult. If you’re studying abroad, your study abroad adviser should have this information handy for you. However, if you’re traveling on your own or if your adviser isn’t able to help you, determining whether or not a visa is necessary can be a much trickier task. When Darci Miller from the University of Miami, who studied abroad in London last spring, couldn’t rely on her adviser for an explanation, she turned to the internet for help. “The UK Border Agency website isn’t the easiest to figure out and I spent many an hour trying to figure out what exactly it was that they wanted from me,” she says.

If you’re in the same boat, try visiting VisaCenter.com. This resource asks you four simple questions (what country your passport is from, your state of residence, where you are traveling, and why you are traveling) and calculates your visa requirements based on your needs. For example, a Floridian collegiette with a United States passport traveling to Vietnam (one of the website’s most popular destinations) as a tourist for less than one month does require a visa. After making this determination, Visa Center will not only help you begin processing your visa request, but also will provide you with an easily accessible application kit.

How Do I Get A Visa?

While the visa process may seem daunting at first, the best way to begin the undertaking is to sit back, take a deep breath, and create a list of the steps you must take.

After determining whether or not you will need a visa to enter your chosen country, the next step is to determine what type of visa you’ll need. The three most popular types of visas are tourist or business visas (for temporary stay visitors, traveling for either business or pleasure), student visas (for students studying abroad), and permanent resident visas (for those planning to live abroad for any length of time).

In order to obtain a visa, you must have a valid passport—a process that, in itself, takes between four and six weeks to complete. Both the Department of State and Her Campus provide convenient resources for those collegiettes still in need of a passport. Truong notes that it is important to have several blank pages available in your passport because your visa will need to go on one of those pages. If you travel frequently, don’t fret; extra passport pages are available for purchase through the Department of State. Also, keep in mind that your passport must be valid for six months after your intended travel dates. The nightmare of dealing with an expired passport abroad is never worth it, so be sure your passport is up-to-date before you leave.

Next, take the time to procure the paperwork you’ll need to get the ball rolling. Gather your visa application form, your proof of travel (“This could be an itinerary, proof of flights and hotels booked, or a letter from someone you are visiting,” says Truong), the applicable visa fees, and any other embassy-required materials that you may need, which vary from country to country. Kate Moriarty, a Skidmore College student who studied abroad in Paris, said that her biggest piece of advice is to over-prepare. “I filled out so many forms—everything I could possibly think of—and yet when I arrived at the visa office, they asked me for forms my school had assured me I wouldn’t need,” she says. Tricia Taormina, a recent graduate of Central Michigan University who also studied abroad in France, adds that for French consulates, “if you make a mistake with your paperwork, you have to make a new appointment.”

Finally, you must send your documents to the appropriate embassy or consulate. Much like the visa requirements themselves, each country has a different protocol for this—in some cases, it is acceptable to mail visa applications, while others require that you turn in your documents at an in-person appointment.

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The Visa Timeframe

With such an extensive amount of preparation required, it’s no wonder that it’s difficult to estimate how long getting a visa will actually take. Tricia, who traveled to India on her own in addition to studying abroad in France, went through two very different visa processes. While it took her over a month to procure her French visa, she describes the visa process for India as very quick. “It took about nine days one I mailed it in,” she says.

In contrast, Kate recalls copious amounts of red tape coloring her French visa application process. “A study abroad adviser in my school’s Office of Off Campus Study and Exchanges helped me with my visa application process, and I couldn’t be more grateful,” she says. Because Kate’s program lasts for four months, the Schengen Agreement does not apply to her travels. “I had to wait 30 days after I first applied online before I could make my appointment at the visa office. And even then, my appointment had to be no more than 90 days before I left for France,” she says. “It was frustrating, because I’d had all this free time at the end of school. Once I was within the visa office’s approved time frame, I was busy with a full-time internship, which meant I had to keep leaving work early in order to take care of it.”

Truong adds: “Obtaining a visa can be easy if there’s a consulate or embassy available—but many times the embassy operates on very strict time schedules. For college students, this might not be the best option. If you cannot apply yourself, then enlist the aid of a travel agency or visa processing service.” Visa processing services such as Visa Center, Passports and Visas and Visa HQ all offer a wide range of services including quick service, up-to-date information, and well-versed professionals who can help answer any questions you may have.

Popular Study Abroad Destinations and Visa Requirements

Australia 
Collegiettes wishing to spend a semester down under must complete several steps in order to receive their Australian visa. While most U.S. passport holders traveling to the country for less than 90 days can obtain an electronic visa, available online for a small fee, students should visit the Visitors page of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship to be sure. According to the website, the visa you will be awarded is determined by both your passport country and courses of study. While this might sound confusing, the website also offers a “student visa chooser” tool that allows you to supply information appropriate to your trip and be pointed in the right direction. 

South Africa
South Africa generally does not require visas from travelers staying in the country for less than 90 days. However, students studying abroad in South Africa are required to obtain a study permit. The required items for obtaining a study permit are listed at the Department of Home Affairs.

Spain
Because Spain is a member of the European Union, and thus under the jurisdiction of the Schengen Agreement, U.S. citizens may enter Spain for up to 90 days without requiring a visa. Citizens planning to stay in Spain for longer than three months must obtain a National Visa, which requires an in-person visit to the Spanish Consular Office, a background check, and fingerprints

Argentina
Like Spain, Argentina requires all student visa applicants to apply in-person at the Argentine consulate’s office closest to your place of residence. Students visiting for what is considered short-term studies (up to 90 days) may enter and remain Argentina as “tourists”; long-term studies students may enter as “tourists” but must, during their stay, adjust their immigration status. Regardless of length of stay, all students must supply the consulate with an official letter of admission from a recognized Argentinian educational institution, a valid passport, and a clear criminal record certificate.

China
While Beijing is quickly becoming one of the more popular study abroad destinations, China’s visa process remains one of the most complex ones. Regardless of why you are visiting, you will need both a visa and a passport valid for six months past your travel dates. To apply, visit your nearest Chinese Consulate and arrive with your paperwork both completed and signed. In addition to the visa application, you must submit a recent color photo, proof of U.S. residency status, and both the original and a photocopy of your school’s admission lette  Costa Rica: One of the more popular destinations for Spanish-studying students, it is surprisingly easy to obtain a Costa Rican visa. Students traveling to the country may only apply for a student visa from Costa Rican Immigration officials after arriving in the country. Students must supply a request for the student visa, their birth certificate, a criminal record, a valid passport, a letter of acceptance from their institution, and evidence of financial means at the rate of $100 per month.

While the visa process can no doubt be a headache, it is a headache worth having. While Darci, Tricia, and Kate each had vastly different visa experiences, they can all agree—along with Truong—that the most important piece of advice that potential visa applicants should keep in mind is do not procrastinate. “Do your research,” says Truong. “If you plan ahead, the visa application process will go very smoothly.”

Lauren is a 20-something writer, baker, photographer, and compulsive e-mail checker. In her spare time, she is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major at Emerson College, with a focus on nonfiction and screenwriting. When she isn't writing, she is enjoys reading Kurt Vonnegut, frosting cupcakes, and quoting Tina Fey's cinematic masterpiece Mean Girls. Sometime in the near future, she hopes to write for GQ, win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and compete on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars--not necessarily in that order.
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