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.