Just passing through: What study abroad students need to know about transit visas

Jan 4, 2020

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Approximately one in 10 U.S. students studies abroad during their undergraduate career, according to the USA Study Abroad committee. That’s about 1.5 million students per year.

If you are one of the lucky 10 percent enrolled abroad, you might have already figured out your student visa requirements by visiting the embassy website of the country you want to study in and applying for a visa. But you might also need a transit visa — especially if you plan on hopping around to other countries during your studies.

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Transit Visa Basics for Students

So first of all, what is a transit visa? It’s a visa that is valid for only a short stay, usually when someone is just passing through the country.

Some transit visas allow passengers to travel through the international zone of an airport but don’t allow you to leave that area. Others allow you to exit that airport zone but only for a set time — for example, 72 hours. Depending on what country your passport is from and where you’re trying to go, you may need to obtain a transit visa before you make your trip — or your airline can cancel your ticket.

Most transit visas require you to get your visa issued before you leave the U.S. by applying at a consulate, while others, like China, allow you to apply for one on arrival at the airport. Each country has different eligibility rules and regulations regarding these visas, so make sure you do your research.

Read more: 10 travel tips every study-abroad student should know before they go

(Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)
A visa may be necessary if you plan on staying in the country you are in so be sure to check before you leave. (Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)

Luckily, most countries don’t require transit visas from U.S. passport holders, especially if you’re just stopping over to catch a connecting flight. If you’re hoping to sightsee and leave the airport, though, the rules vary from country to country.

Here’s a list of the countries most visited by U.S. citizens and their transit visa policies so you can make sure you’re on solid legal footing for your travel plans.

Australia

If you’re visiting Australia, you need a visa if your stopover in the country is more than 72 hours long. For three days, however, you can have a visa-free vacation in the land of kangaroos.

Brazil

As long as you aren’t leaving the international terminal during your connection, you don’t need a visa.

Read more: What the city you studied abroad in says about you

China

For Americans, China actually grants a 72-hour visa-free transit period. There are stipulations to this, however: You have to be landing in specific airports, you can only stay in certain cities and your flight has to be coming from a country that isn’t the same one you’ll be departing to from China. If you’re just connecting and staying within the international terminal, you are set to go.

Egypt

U.S. citizens can transit for a maximum of 48 hours visa-free through Egypt. You’re even allowed to leave the airport as long as your transit time is between 6-48 hours. Passengers with a stopover of less than six hours, however, can’t leave the airport.

India

If you have to leave the international terminal for your connecting plane, train, or car, you’ll need a transit visa. If you remain at the airport, you’re fine.

Mexico

No visa needed as long as you have a valid passport.

Morocco

A visa is not required to transit through Morocco, though you must have a passport valid for six months beyond your travel dates, a round-trip or onward ticket, and a valid visa for the next destination if it’s required.

Russia

You’re going to need a visa if your layover exceeds 24 hours, if you need to switch airports or if you have to leave the international terminal you landed at.

Schengen Area

If you’re traveling to or through the Schengen Area, which includes 22 out of 28 EU member states, you can rest easy: United States passport holders don’t need to acquire transit visas when connecting in the area. As long as you’re connecting in any EU member except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania, Ireland or the United Kingdom, you’re good to go without a transit visa.

Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland are also included in the visa-free rules. Since the Schengen Area allows U.S. citizens to stay in the area for 90/180 days every year, travel through there should be pretty straightforward unless you’re close to your 90-day limit.

United Kingdom

U.S. passport holders can actually stay in the U.K. for up to six months without a visa, so transiting is no problem. 

Vietnam

You can stay in the airport visa-free, but if you want to check out the city on a long layover, you’ll need to secure a single-entry visa ahead of time.

Bottom line

These rules might change. This isn’t a comprehensive list and you should certainly double-check with your destination country’s consulate just to make sure you’ll experience problem-free travel.

For more resources, check out our guide to prepping your finances before studying abroad and the best credit cards for students studying abroad.

Featured photo by swissmediavision/Getty Images.

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