Getting a Visa

We can’t discuss expatriation without talking about the biggest elephant in the room: Getting a visa.

Visas play a huge role in your expatriation and location independence. If there is anything that determines how long you stay in one place and where you go next, it’s those visas and how flexible immigrations are with foreign visitors.

Visas Are Not The Same As Visa Exemption Stamps

When you visit another country on a short vacation, you hand your passport to immigrations and they put an inked stamp on it. This is not a visa. The stamp is a visa exemption stamp. This stamp tells immigrations or any official in that country that you are allowed to stay in their country without a visa for a set period of time, usually up to 30 days.

A visa, however, allows you to stay in the country longer than the visa exemption stamp permits you. Getting a visa is straightforward, but are subject to the immigration rules of each particular country. Unfortunately, there are 196 countries on this globe, each with their own immigration rules. Sometimes these rules differ depending on which country you are a citizen to. And these rules are always changing. It’s impossible to outline all the visa rules here. Perhaps one day, when this blog grows into garangutan proportions and I have a fleet of expat writers on my team…

As a traveling expat, you’ll want to be prepared to do visa runs and border runs, at least until you get a longer term visa.

Researching Visa Requirements

Again, it’s impossible to cover all the peculiarities of each country and their immigration rules, so expect some variations from country to country. But what I can put on here is a small blueprint on how to research visas in your target country:

Start by googling “[country] visa requirements” to get a rough initial idea.

It’s almost always better to go straight to the source than to read online forums where ten people could give ten different answers to one question in the same thread. When you start getting serious about a particular country, you can search for consulate and embassy locations near you on Google:

“[country] consulate [your city or state]”

“[country] embassy [your city or state]”

Then go to their website. They should have a menu with several options, go there and click Visas.

There you will find a list of several different types of visas and the requirements for each. Read through these and see which ones fit your circumstances and those you can realistically obtain. Usually you start by looking at the tourist visa requirements and work your way up. If you want to stay in that country longer than just month or two, you want to get the longest possible visa you are eligible for.

Collect The Right Documentation

Start thinking about how you’re going to collect the documents necessary for obtaining the visa you want, and figure how far in advance you can apply before shipping out (usually 1-2 months or less). Consulate websites usually provide a visa form PDF for you to print and fill out.

Tourist Visas of many countries require the following documentation:

  • Passport with at least 6 valid months left beyond the visa expiration date
  • Visa application form filled out and signed
  • Two passport sized color photos of yourself
  • Copy of confirmed flight reservations to destination (plus an onward ticket if required)
  • Copy of hotel reservation or evidence of accommodation (if required)
  • Copy of bank statements showing you have a balance above $XXXX (if required)
  • Copy of employment verification letter or business registration if self-employed (if required)
  • …plus whatever else they ask for…

Most of these items are self explanatory. Usually the first 3-4 items above are hard requirements, as in they will not issue a visa if you are missing one of these. Whether the rest are required is at the consulate’s discretion.

Onward Ticket

The point of an onward ticket is to show the consulate that you won’t overstay in their country after your visa expires. Airlines also want to see an onward ticket so they wouldn’t have to be on the hook for flying you back if you get turned away by immigrations at your destination airport.

What I did in my case was to buy the cheapest ticket I could find that departed from my destination city a few months after I arrive there. I found one ticket from Bangkok to Vietnam for only $35. I could choose to not go, in which case $35 is no big loss. Most likely, I will actually use that ticket to go visit Vietnam for a couple of weeks.

Another way is to buy a refundable ticket and cancel it later. If you do this, just make sure the airline doesn’t charge you if you cancel the ticket.

Bank Statements

Bank statements showing a cushy balance will reassure the consulate that you won’t run out of money in their country and end up sleeping on the street. I’ve actually seen some expats in cargo shorts and grimy t-shirts sleeping on the street next to a litter of empty beer bottles. Obviously, something went horribly wrong with these folks somewhere along the line. So I don’t blame the consulate for wanting proof of a decent bank balance before they’ll grant you a visa.

The amount on your statement they want to see depends on your visa requirements, and what type of visa you are applying for. Generally, the shorter the visa, the lower the required amount. Visas that are valid for several months to a year or longer usually require proof of a balance of several thousand dollars. Save accordingly.

Proof of Employment

They may ask for other papers like work permits or proof of employment arrangements for certain types of visas (like a non-immigrant business visa, for instance) that allows you to work legally in your destination country.

This applies when you are looking for employment in your destination country. If you are an expat being transferred by your employer, usually your company takes care of all that. If you own your own business, but want to work with clients in said country, you will likely need a work permit. To get a work permit, you will need a non-immigrant business visa (or some similar equivalent) in that country. In that case, the consulate will need someone in that country to write an “approval” letter on your behalf.

The Appointment

I know some consulates don’t ask for all of these documents for every person, every time, at every location, but I recommend bringing everything the first time you apply for a visa at a particular consulate so you don’t receive any unexpected surprises. It helps to dress nicely, be organized with your paperwork, and act like you have your shit together when you go apply at the consulate.

Some countries may have very particular or even retarded rules about visas and how you use them, while other countries are constantly changing their visa rules every year. This causes a fair amount of confusion among seasoned expats and even among immigrations officers themselves! It’s fine to ask other expats for information on visas, but I would not live or die by another expat’s word, even if he has good intentions. I would go straight to the source — the consulate or embassy. Give them a call or write them an email. Generally, they will help you if you ask.

Next Post: My Experience With The Consulate

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