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A Family Guide to Travel Visas

Dec. 14, 2018
8 min read
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Traveling abroad can feel like an endless list of checks and balances, especially when traveling with the family.

Accommodation confirmation - check. Flight itinerary - check. Passports - check. Family - check (no Home Alone incidents!)

However, even with all of that squared away, there’s another important item that we sometimes leave off the initial checklist that can be vital to have when traveling internationally: a visa.

What Is a Travel Visa?

A travel visa is a document given to you by the government of the country in which you are traveling. The visa gives travelers authorization to enter certain destinations for a specified amount of time. However, not all visas are created equally. This means that the process of obtaining a travel visa can be very different depending on the country, so it is vital to know all of the requirements before making your travel plans.

Passport visa page
(Photo by yenwen / Getty Images)

Some visas are electronic, while others can be a sticker, stamp or sheet of paper placed inside one of the pages marked "Visa," in your passport. An electronic visa, or e-visa, is stored in a computer system and linked to your passport. For example, Brazil offers an e-visa option where you can apply online and upon entering the country will have your passport scanned and confirm you're eligibility to enter. Some visas, like Egypt's tourist visa, can be applied for on arrival at the airport. This type of visa is given just before passing through border patrol.

Visas also have certain specifications like transit, tourism/leisure, work or student. In terms of family travel, you'd most often be applying for a visa for tourism purposes. These visas are granted to give you and your family the opportunity to enter the country, sightsee and enjoy leisure activities. Under a tourist-classified visa, you are generally not allowed to work, live or do anything business-related. This type of visa is strictly for leisure over a short-period of time.

Understand that travel/tourist visas have variations. The amount of time (30, 60, 90 or 120 days) you can spend in a country and how many times you enter/exit on one visa depends on the country's specified regulations. In the event you would like to extend your stay beyond your visa, you can apply for an extension.

How Do I Find Out If I Need a Visa?

The US Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs maintains country-specific information on visa requirements. You can also check to see if you need a visa for your travels by consulting that country's consulate or embassy. These websites will give you up-to-date information on visa application requirements, where to apply, costs and any additional details you may need. You can also call or email the embassy directly if you have questions.

There are also third-party companies that keep a listing of visa requirements and can potentially even help you obtain necessary visas. However, always double-check that information to be sure it is up-to-date since requirements can and do change.

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Do My Kids Need a Visa, Too?

In a word, yes. Just like children need their own passports, children traveling to countries where visas are required also need to have their own visa. In some cases, a birth certificate and a notarized consent letter is required stating that both parent/guardians grant permission for the child to obtain a visa and travel abroad.

kids with their passports
(Photo by PhotoAlto/Thierry Foulon / Getty Images)

What Documents Are Needed for the Application?

Remember that because visas are all unique, there are different requirements for application in different countries. Generally, the documents needed to apply include:

  • an interview/appointment letter (with date, time and name)
  • current passport valid for a certain period of time
  • passport-sized photograph (size depends on country's regulation)
  • proof of income and funds (not always required)
  • round-trip flight itinerary (recently, the United States may not allow its passport holders to board their initial flight without proof of a return ticket.)
  • proof of accommodations

Oftentimes, you will mail your documentation and application to the country's embassy for processing. But, some countries require in-person applications and perhaps even an interview component. So, be sure to double, even triple-check to ensure that you have all documentation required for your appointment as the requirements can vary from those listed above.

How Much Will It Cost?

Costs for visas can vary. For example, an on-arrival visa for US passport holders traveling to Egypt is $25, whereas a multiple-entry visa to Russia is $270. The costs can also vary due to processing times (normal, express or urgent), classification of entries (singular or multiple) or if you opt to go through a visa processing agency versus doing everything on your own. You can at least enjoy earning bonus points when paying visa fees.

What Happens If We Arrive Without a Visa?

In most cases, you would not be allowed board an international flight without the required visa. However, some countries, such as Kenya, Armenia and Paraguay, offer visas on arrival. You would stop to get the visa before passing through immigration. It is imperative to make sure you know beforehand the entry/exit requirements, as some countries will ban you for attempting to visit without a pre-applied visa.

(Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

How Does This Work in Practice?

Every country sets its own policies on visa requirements, so we can't step you through one common application process. But, let's take a look at what it's like to apply for a visa in two different countries — Egypt and China — so you get a feel for how the process may differ country to country.

Egypt makes it fairly easy for US citizens to visit since it offers two ways to get a visa, including an easy "visa on arrival" option. For $25 per person, the visa on arrival is good for 30 days. Alternatively, US citizens can apply for an e-visa online, prior to travel, and have the option of single entry for 30 days or a multiple entry that's valid for up to 90 days. While the e-visa option is only $15 according to the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, most travelers will tell you that the visa on arrival option is the way to go.

girl with camel
(Photo by olgaza / Getty Images)

China has been known to cause visa headaches for some Americans because the application process is more in-depth than what you may have experienced when applying for visas to other countries. There are many types of Chinese visas but the one you likely want is the "L" classification for a family vacation... meaning you are visiting strictly for tourism purposes.

You'll need to carefully fill out an application. Your passport must be signed, have at least two blank visa pages and be valid for at least six months beyond the end of your trip to China. You also need to submit photos of yourself with specific parameters as noted in the application. You'll either deliver the application to your local Chinese embassy or you can send all of that information, including your passport, to a third-party visa service for processing. (It's wise to use a trackable service like FedEx or UPS for this delivery.) Your passport will be returned with the visa placed inside. Don't be discouraged by the paperwork. Just follow the instructions and look forward to your journey.

China's Great Wall
China's Great Wall (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Bottom Line

Visa requirements can change at any time, so view the above examples as more of a guideline of what might be required than what to bring on your specific trip. Many editors and writers at The Points Guy turn to Allied Passports for help with some of their more complex visas and travel documents, so that is an option if the process starts to feel overwhelming.

Has your family applied for a visa for a trip? How did the process go?

Featured image by Getty Images/Caiaimage

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