In 2013, I decided to learn the Tango in its birthplace: Buenos Aires. While researching my trip, I found several sites that said Americans didn’t need a visa to visit Argentina, but a couple of sites did mention a “reciprocity fee on arrival.” I figured it was similar to the Dominican Republic’s $10 “tourist fee,” which is paid on arrival, and didn’t think anything of it.
When I got to the airport to leave for my trip, I was in for a shock. At the check-in counter, I was asked for my “reciprocity receipt.” I was puzzled. That’s when I found out that I had to pay the reciprocity fee BEFORE my arrival and they wouldn’t let me into the country without it. Oh, and the fee amount? It was $160!
A $160 surprise was upsetting, to put it mildly. And at that point, I had to make a decision: Find a way to pay the $160 or scrap a trip that had already cost me over $700. I decided to pay. And that was the easy part. I then had to get online, pay the fee, and get printed proof that I’d done so. Luckily, I’m a military veteran and the airport had a United States Organization (USO) with computers and a printer, and, to their credit, Argentina has an extremely easy site. I paid with my debit card, printed my receipt, and was on my way.
But here’s the thing: I was later informed that Americans only had to pay the $160 fee if they flew into Buenos Aires‘ Ezeiza and Jorge Newbery Airports. It wasn’t an overall travel fee! If I’d come overland or by water from Uruguay, it wouldn’t have applied and I could have saved my money!
That experience was just one of the many lessons I learned (often the hard way) about the ins and outs of travel visa rules and regulations. And while Argentina has since suspended its reciprocity fee for Americans (although it’s still in place for Canadians and Australians), there are still plenty of other similar pitfalls out there when it comes to visas and visiting foreign countries.
Here are some simple tips, based on what I’ve learned, to help you understand and figure out what you need to know about visas that may help you on your travels:
Plan Ahead of Time
Some visas are a simple matter of showing up in your country of choice. Other’s require an extensive interview process that could take weeks well before your trip. So you need to be sure to plan accordingly depending on your target country’s requirements. A great place to start (if you’re a citizen of the United States) is the State Department’s website, which features an interactive section organized by country where you can look up a summary of the visa requirements for those traveling on a U.S. passport to almost any destination.
Factor in the Cost of Visa and Reciprocity Fees
Visa and reciprocity fees differ widely depending on your country’s relationship with the host nation. And for many, a $200 surprise can hurt that travel budget. I tend to research heavily, so I’m rarely shocked by visa costs. But you know what does surprise me? The massive jump in visa fees that can happen from one year to the next. For example, a 1-month tourist visa to Vietnam used to only cost $25. At the beginning of 2017, however, it jumped to $135. So be aware of that if you’re planning a trip that’s set for the next calendar year.
ALWAYS Get an E-Visa When Available
Some countries have started to take their visa application process digital and offer what’s known as an “e-visa” (as in “electronic visa”). If a country you want to visit offers an e-visa, don’t even hesitate: do it! It allows you to apply online for your visa and receive it digitally, so you don’t need to ship off your passport or stand in line. It’s amazingly efficient and something every traveler should take advantage of whenever possible.
When I lived in Turkey, it was a bit of pain to get a visa because it had to be done in person, making it quite time-consuming. Now, since Turkey uses an e-visa, it doesn’t take long at all.
Consider Application in Different Countries
Okay, now this is a travel hack that many long-term travelers, like myself, exploit. Many countries that issue visas have different prices depending on where you apply for them. So, for example, an American looking to get a multi-entry visa to China from the U.S. will pay about $140 in fees, meanwhile, that same visa for an American applying at the Chinese embassy in Bangkok will cost around $156. The lesson here is that is that if you’re planning a trip through several different countries, you can compare all the visa application fees for where you’re going from where you’ll be and maybe find a way to save some money.
Certain visas can also be less difficult to obtain if you apply for them from certain countries. For example, it’s easier to get a 60-day visa for Thailand in Laos than it is in the U.S.
Make Sure You Have Enough Pages for a Visa
Blank passport page requirements are relatively universal. Most countries require you have at least 2 to 4 blank pages to allow you to enter the country, some even require 6. U.S. passport holders used to be able to get additional blank pages added to their existing passports, but that was phased out in 2016. To make up the loss of adding pages, any American that now applies to renew their passport from overseas will automatically get a 52-pages passport, which those who apply for a passport in the U.S. have to request on their application.
Personally, I’m on my third passport and my current travel plans will finish it off by March 2018. At that point, I’ll have to get a new one, which will probably be the 52-page version.
Always Check Your Destination’s Official Immigration Site First
There are thousands of “visa services” out there and a lot of these organizations give out largely false information. So be sure to check your home country’s visa site as well as your target country’s to ensure you have the most accurate information.
Remember when I mentioned the State Department’s website above? Well, the same section where you can look up a summary of country’s visa requirements for U.S. passport holders also links to those country’s official immigration sites.
Be Calm and Humble
So you’ve got your visa situation figured out and you land in your destination. It’s all good right? Nope. You have one last barrier that people rarely talk about — the immigration officer. Especially for visa on arrival countries the United Kingdom, that agent has the power to say “yes” or “no” to your entry to the country. A lot of times, they’ll look over your travel documents, stamp your passport, let you in. But sometimes, they’ll pepper you with questions (“Where are you staying?” “What’s the purpose of your visit?” “Who are you traveling with?”). I’ve had some pretty awkward and funny situations talking to immigration officers over the years, usually about when I have to explain what I do for a living and especially when there’s a language barrier. But as long as you remain calm and humble, you’ll be fine.
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