A visa is a travel document that allows you to enter a foreign country for a specific period of time. In most cases, you have to apply for a visa before travelling, either at an embassy, consulate, or online. Sometimes you can also obtain a visa on arrival. Visas are usually affixed onto your passport and state how long you can stay.
Most countries impose visa requirements for foreign nationals as a security measure: to keep track of who enters and to stop illegal immigration. Visas are also used as a defensive effort, stopping security risks from entering a country.
What Does a Visa Look Like?
A visa is a sticker on your passport, containing your name, picture, and the number of days you are allowed to stay in a specific country.
In some cases, visas are also issued as separate documents and are not attached to your passport – such as electronic visas, which you must print out.
A Brief History of Travel Visas
The word visa originates from Modern Latin “charta visa,” which means verified paper or translated into “paper that has to be seen.” Previously, visas were separate documents that went hand in hand with the passport during international travel, but nowadays, most visas are stamps or stickers attached to your passport.
Here is a brief history of how travel documents began:
First travel documents
The first mention of traveling documents (passport and a visa) in the Hebrew Bible when Nehemiah, who was under the service of the Persian King Artaxerxes I, asked for a travel passage to Judea (region in Jerusalem).
The first passport
The reign of King Henry the V— who is credited with creating the first passport.
The “Passe port”
The reign of King Louis XIV of France (the Sun King), who liked to issue personally signed travel documents he called “passe port”— although there is still much debate where the name “passport” originates from.
At the end of the First World War, passports became obligatory documents for international travels and were often accompanied by visas.
1922 – 1938
The League of Nations in Paris established the Nansen passport to combat the loss of nationality that many refugees experienced after WWI.
1922 – 1938
At the end of the Second World War, there was a heavy surge of migration worldwide, requiring stricter border patrol. Both travel documents, visas, and passports were mandatory in most cases for international travel.
Nowadays, as an identification document, you must have a valid passport issued by your home country when you travel internationally. Travelling visas, issued by your destination country, are considered an essential tool in migration control.
Visa Types by Purpose
Some of the common visa types by purpose of travel include:
Tourist visas are entry permits issued for recreational purposes. Tourist types of visas are short-term, usually valid for three months, and you cannot work while on a tourist visa. There is usually no limit to how many times you can apply for a tourist visa for the same country— as long as the embassy/consulate grants the visa; you can freely travel.
A transit visa allows you to pass through a specific country while traveling to a third destination country. For example, if you have an Indian passport and you are travelling to Canada, but during your trip you have a layover in a Schengen country, you will need a Schengen transit visa.
Usually, this type of visa is issued for 24 up to 96 hours, but it can also be issued for ten days up to two weeks—depending on which country you transit through. You have to apply for a transit visa before traveling; transit visas are not issued at the airport.
You can apply for a medical visa to seek medical treatment in a foreign country. Medical visas are short-term issued for the duration of the medical procedure and the patient’s recovery time. To qualify for this type of visa, you need to provide evidence from your doctor regarding your condition and proof that you have found a hospital and a doctor in your destination country who will perform the required procedure.
Working holiday visas are short-term permits that can be considered a mix of the tourist and work visas. The purpose of this visa is to allow you to explore a foreign country like on a holiday while working to support your trip financially. Most countries have restrictions on what type of work you can do and how many hours you can work.
Generally speaking, working holiday visas are issued for a year or two, and you can only apply for the visa once (except Australia’s working holiday visa). To be eligible for a work and holiday visa, in most cases, you must be between the ages of 18-30.
Student visas are issued for educational purposes and are usually valid for the duration of your study program. As a result, your study visa can last between one to four years, or even more, depending on your course. You cannot work in another country with a student visa unless your host country permits you.
If you find work in a foreign country, you must apply for a work visa. Work visas are usually issued for long-term purposes from one up to four years, but this changes depending on your work contract. Your working visa serves as a route to a permanent residence permit in most cases.
A visa for family reunification is issued when your spouse lives and works in another country. This visa allows you to become a temporary (or permanent) resident in the country where your partner is working. Usually, a family visa is also issued to any minor children you or your spouse have.
An investment visa allows you to become resident in another country if you make a significant financial investment. The required investment varies (in a startup, bonds, a government fund, etc.) but the result must be the same: a positive financial impact and/or employment opportunities.
In some countries, you may also acquire a visa if you purchase real estate property.
Official visas allow you to do diplomatic work as a representative of your country abroad. Some of the most commonly issued official permits are diplomatic visas, but some countries also provide service and courtesy visas.
You can apply for a refugee or an asylum seeker visa if you are being persecuted in your home country due to religious, racial, or political reasons. Every country issues their own visa to accommodate persons who have refugee status.
To qualify for a digital nomad visa, you must meet the definition of a digital nomad. This definition varies depending on the country, but it’s usually someone who can work remotely either for a company or individual clients. To apply for this type of visa, you must find a country with a digital nomad immigration program.
Pilgrimage visas are issued to people who want to complete a religious journey in another country. An example of a pilgrimage visa is the Hajj visa issued by Saudi Arabia to Muslims who want to complete the sacred journey of Hajj in Mecca. These types of visas are usually issued for a group of people rather than an individual and are valid only for the time it takes to complete the pilgrimage.
A retirement visa is issued to foreigners who want to retire outside of their home country. It is issued only to those that have reached their retirement age and is given in form of a residence permit. Usually, authorities require proof of sufficient funds to support yourself.
Not everyone requires a visa to travel. Many countries have visa waiver agreements, which means they allow citizens of a select few countries to enter visa-free for short trips. Passport holders of Western countries (such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, and the EU States) can travel to most places without a visa.
The allowed time for visa-free stays is short; it ranges from a few days to a few months. Regardless of your nationality, you should check your visa requirements before traveling.
When you are visiting a country without a visa, you cannot work or sell any goods or services.
Ways to Get a Travel Visa
Most commonly, you apply for a visa through one of the following ways:
At an embassy or consulate of the country that you will visit.
Online (electronic visa).
At the point of entry (visa on arrival).
The method of application depends on the specific country and your nationality. You should never travel without checking your visa requirements.
Visa Application at an Embassy
In most cases, you can apply for a visa at the embassy or consulate of the country you want to visit. You will have to:
Make an appointment.
Collect a set of documents.
Pay a visa processing fee.
Enter a visa interview (sometimes).
The consular officers will review your application and decide whether to grant you a visa or not. Depending on the visa type, it could take several days to several months to process your application.
Sometimes, embassies or consulates will outsource visa submissions to private travel agencies. This means the agency collects your documents and sends them to the embassy/consulate, which then makes the decision.
Online Visa Application
You can also apply for a visa online. Electronic (online) visas are usually issued as printable documents and are not pasted onto your passport. If a country issues electronic visas, then there will be an official application website, where you can:
Complete an online visa application form.
Attach electronic copies of your documents.
Pay a visa fee.
Make sure that the website you are applying through is the official website, as you may have to provide personal information during the application and even pay a fee.
It can take a few minutes to several days to hear a decision on your visa application.
Visa on Arrival
You can apply for a visa at the airport or other point of entry of the country you are traveling to. This is known as a visa on arrival (VOA). In these cases, there will be visa counters at the point of entry, where you have to apply, pay a fee, and then wait for the decision to be made before you can pass through. Depending on the country, it could take from a few minutes to a few hours.
Not all countries issue visas on arrival.
Even countries that issue VOAs usually limit them only to certain nationalities.
Visas on arrival are usually only available at certain airports or entry points.
Common Reasons for Visa Denial
These are some of the most common reasons why your visa application may be denied:
Passport blank pages. The number of required blank pages on your passport differs from country to country, but it is usually two to four pages. Blank pages are required so there is enough space to stamp your passport and visa.
Vaccination requirements. Several countries in Africa ask you to have an international vaccination certificate; otherwise, you won’t be granted a visa.
Criminal record. It’s almost impossible to obtain a visa with a criminal record; only a few select countries, i.e., the US, and Canada, will grant a waiver for your criminal record when you need a visa.
Travel ban. All governments have the power to declare a person “persona non grata.” As a result, diplomats and non-diplomats will not be allowed to enter a specific country.
Visas can be issued for the following durations and validities:
A short-stay visa can be issued for anywhere between a few days to several months. This type of visa is usually issued for tourists, business people, or other short-term purposes, like seeking medical attention or visiting family.
A long-stay visa can be issued for months or years. Sometimes, residence permits are also referred to as long-stay visas.
As the name suggests, a single-entry visa only allows you to enter that specific country or area once. After you leave, you cannot return, even if you have remaining days.
With a multiple-entry visa, you can enter a country or area multiple times, as long as the visa is valid.
What is the Difference Between a Passport and a Visa?
While they are both travel documents, the main difference between a passport and a visa is that a passport is issued from your home country, whereas a visa is issued by the country you want to visit. Other differences include:
The passport is an identification travel document, whereas a visa is attached to your passport, showing you have permission to enter a specific country.
A passport is issued for about ten years, whereas a visa’s duration is shorter, usually a few months.
What Is the Difference Between a Visa and a Residence Permit?
The terms visa and a residence permit are often used interchangeably. However, a notable difference between the two is:
You need a visa to travel to and enter a foreign country, either for tourism, business, work, studies, etc., usually for a short period.
You need a residence permit to settle in a foreign country for an extended period.
Sometimes, you receive a visa first and then convert it into a residence permit once you enter your destination country. Other times, you automatically get a residence permit as soon as you apply for a long-stay visa (work, study, family reunion, etc.)
What Are Electronic Travel Authorizations?
Electronic travel authorizations are entry requirements for nationals who do not need a visa for a specific country. They can be easily obtained online for a small fee, and are valid for long periods of time. The following are examples of electronic travel authorizations:
eTA (Canada). The Canadian eTA costs CAD 7 and is approved within just a few minutes. It is valid for up to five years, and allows you to stay six months per trip.
ETA (Australia). The Australian ETA costs AUC 20 and is approved within a few minutes. It is issued for one year, and allows you to visit Australia multiple times during its validity.
ESTA (United States). The American ESTA costs USD 14 and is approved within a few minutes. It is issued for up to two years, and allows you multiple entries to the US, with a maximum three months per trip.
ETIAS (European Union). The European Union’s ETIAS will become mandatory starting from May 2023. It will cost €7 and will be valid for three years. It will allow multiple trips of up to three months during its validity period.
Electronic travel authorizations are not actual visas and their purpose is to simply keep track of who enters and leaves a country. Because of this, it is unlikely that an application will be rejected.
Joint Visa Schemes
Some countries that are a part of a regional organization issue a common visa for all organization member states. Some of the most well known common visas include:
The Central American Single Visa. This is a joint visa agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Citizens of these countries can travel visa-free between member states. Tourists can also visit all member countries with one visa.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This is an agreement between several Middle Eastern countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Citizens of these countries can travel visa-free within their borders, but due to political strain, visa-free travel is not always permissible.
The Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance includes Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, allowing its citizens to travel visa-free. Tourists can also travel in each member state with one visa.
The KAZA Univisa. The KAZA Univisa agreement allows you to travel between Zambia and Zimbabwe for 30 days.
The CARICOM Visa. The CARICOM Agreement comprises 15 Caribbean countries which allow visa-free travel among their citizens. Furthermore, the agreement issues a joint CARICOM passport for their nationals which can be used for domestic and international travel.
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This agreement includes 15 member states in West Africa whose citizens enjoy the freedom of movement between the countries.
Mercosur Agreement. Composed of four entire member states, (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay), along with several other associate countries, the Mercosur Agreement allows visa-free travel for its citizens. However, each country regulates its visa policy for international visitors.
The British-Irish Visa Scheme (BIVS Visa).The BIVS is a visa scheme between the United Kingdom and Ireland allowing foreing nationals to travel with one visa between these two countries. For example, if you have a valid visa for Britain you can enter Ireland with the same permit.
An exit visa is a traveling permit that grants you permission to leave a specific country. Nowadays, exit visas are considered an outdated practice borderline a violation of human rights, so most countries do not enforce an exit visa.
Here is a list of the countries which require some form of an exit visa:
The People’s Republic of China
United Arab Emirates
Exit visas can sometimes be imposed on you because of your nationality, so check the traveling requirements with an embassy or consulate before you depart.