Visas: The Basic Info for Expats

Hello. Nice to see you again. Now here’s an important issue. Let’s say you’ve got a trip in mind. But you’re confused about the different sorts of visas you might need—for travel or even to live in a foreign country.

Well, it’s not that hard to understand. But let’s start with the easiest question first.

1.  Do I need a visa to travel as a tourist?

Yes, you do. Some of the time.

It depends on your passport. If you’re from the U.S., Europe or one of the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, traveling as a tourist is going to be a lot easier than it is for many other folks. (More about this later… )

That said, everyone’s legal way of crossing a border is going to be one of three types.

The 1st type: visa-free.


Okay, this happens when you enter a country, and without you making any advance arrangements, a border official stamps your passport with the date.

Hence, a visa is unnecessary. It’s visa-free.

And there are a few situations in which there might not be a stamp at all, i.e. when Americans and Canadians drive into each other’s countries or use an automated kiosk at an airport. Ditto for Europeans traveling in their own Schengen Zone. They don’t even have to check in at a border.

As well, some Latin American countries have agreements with other nations for visa-free travel. (I’m not sure about the stamp. Most countries have to do something to your passport.)

Next we have the 2nd type of legal tourism: the visa-on-arrival.

Which is similar to visa-free. You don’t have to do anything in advance. But when you arrive at a border, you will have to pay for that little stamp in your passport. (Bring cash: USD, Euro, or local currency. I’ve found that most fees start at no less 50 USD.)

A $70 example of a visa-on-arrival. Ouch.

And those are the easier visas, also known as ‘unrestricted’ travel—for many of us.

For my friends from Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Yemen, it’s a different story. In Sana’a, a Yemeni friend once said, “Some day I’d like to visit Malaysia.” I wondered why. Turns out Malaysia is one of the few countries that welcomes Yemenis visa-free.

Another example. A Lebanese friend once tried to meet a group of us in Prague. Her passport ranks even lower than the Yemeni passport, near the bottom of the Arab list. So, after a long day at the Czech consulate in Beirut, she emailed us, “I will not be treated like an animal!” We cancelled the trip in solidarity.

At any rate, if you are curious about how many countries you can get into visa-free or visa-on-arrival, you may want to look at this global ranking of passports.

The Henley & Partners top four ranks. The score is the number of countries that can be entered visa-free or visa-on-arrival.

The last type of tourist visa is—you guessed it—visa in advance.

Which is required by a quite a few countries. And it means just what it says. You have to apply for the visa before you leave.

To do this, go to the country’s consulate website in your own country. Download their application form, and mail them the form you’ve filled out, your passport, a money order and some sort of prepaid return envelope.

NB: There might be some exceptions to the in-your-own-country rule. On one trip, I was surprised to learn I needed a visa-in-advance for India. But I was able to get the visa by going in person to their embassy in Kenya, where I happened to be.

2. How do I know which visa, if any, is needed for which country?

Good question. To help you answer it, look at this handy-dandy chart I found. (Sorry, it’s only for Americans.)

A sample from the chart.

Whoever who are, do not refer only to a chart. Please check consulate sites of any of your destination countries before you leave. Regulations can change. You don’t want any nasty surprises. (Which could happen as a retaliatory act if Mr. Trump gets his ban.)

3. How long can I stay in a country as a tourist?

For Americans (again), the usual length of stay in our visa-free and visa-on-arrival countries is 90 days. This includes Europe, Australia, New Zealand, most of Central America and South America—and a few places elsewhere.

To check your length of stay, please look again at that handy chart.

BTW, if you’re thinking about Europe, you can see that after those countries (look below at Austria), it says: “90 days within any 180 day period in the Schengen Area.” This means you can stay for 90 days only in the entire Schengen zone. For example, you can’t stay in Austria for 90 days and then spend another 90 days in Germany. You have to leave for 90 days in-between.

I mention this because I was talking to a friend recently, who wanted to spend 9 months in 4 EU countries. A trip like that is certainly possible, but to do it, you’d have to get a long-stay tourist visa for one of those countries. (Which I’ll get to.)

On the chart (again), you can also see that in quite a few countries, you can stay for 180 days or more on your tourist visa. Which is perfect if you want to alternate time at home with time spent overseas.

These 180-day countries include, in no particular order, Armenia, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, the U.K. (for U.S. and Canadian citizens), and lots and lots of island nations.

Now what I’m telling you is the minimum. I’m just trying to get you excited about the possibilities. This link on Tim Leffel’s Cheapest Destinations Blog lets you download his more-than-three-months list, and get even more excited.

One last word about tourist visas. Make sure your passport is valid for 6 months beyond your planned length of stay. That’s the U.S. State Department recommendation, which I think is conservative. But airline agents and border officials will check this.

4. Okay, I’ve decided on a country, want to really live there. Do I have to get a residency permit?

Yes, you do. If you want to be legal.

And like the different types of tourist visas, there are also different types of residency visas. A lot more types.

Just to give you an idea of what’s out there, here are some of the residency visa/permits. (Most are good for a year and are renewable.)

The Student Visa. You’ll need this if you’re studying in a country for longer than their tourist visa allows. For example, if you’re doing a 5-month semester in any EU country, that’s longer than their 3-month tourist visa. You will have to apply for their student visa.

NB: If you’re going as an exchange student, your college may help you may make your arrangements.

Here’s a nice student, the only one to go to school in his family. Shah Agha hopes to study in America. Well, Afghanistan is not on the Muslim ban list…

The Work Permit. This is needed when you actually have a job or are working freelance in another country. In some places, you might be able to do this quietly, without a permit. But you didn’t hear this from me.

Now there are two ways to get a work permit. First, if you work for an American company or if a foreign employer recruits you from overseas, they’re probably going to arrange your permit for you. The latter is what happened to me on all my teaching jobs, most of which I found on Dave’s ESL Café. The job advert should tell you if they’ll manage your permit.

A work permit. Be sure to ask for multiple entry.

But if you’re not recruited, and you have your heart set on a certain destination, you’ll most likely have to arrange your own work permit. For how Ted Campbell showed up in Mexico, then found a job and then got legal, you might want to read this Transitions Abroad post.

Wow, seems like a job in itself. But it is do-able.

The Entrepreneur’s Visa. Sometimes called the business or start-up visa. Most countries have some version of this.

This includes starting a bricks-and-mortar company, working freelance-style in your own business, or earning money online. (Yes, a country may require you to report all income, even if the source is from another nation. This is what EU countries do.)

For more about the entrepreneur’s visa, please check my Ten Tips for Surviving Trump post. (It’s Tip #5.) And like I said there, the cost of starting your business is not necessarily prohibitive. Though you’ll probably have to prove you have enough to live on.

And some countries may even help you set-up your business, like it says here about the Netherlands. Beyond the EU, many Latin American countries don’t require much of investment either, but sorry, you’ll have to check consulate sites yourself. Or better yet, find professional help.

Investor’s Visa. This is when you make a large enough investment in a company or in real estate to get you residency in a country. But again, this may not be a prohibitive amount. Depends on the country and its economy.

Ecuador, for example, needs a $25K investment in real estate or deposited in a bank to get you residency. I’ll bet there are other low-investment countries too, but I’m just putting the idea out there.

Ecuador looks spectacular, doesn’t it? Credit: iStock.

Artist’s and Athlete’s Visas. For you artists and athletes out there, several European countries may allow you to apply for temporary residency. Germany helps artists with other details too—here’s Adam’s account of how he got his artist/freelancer visa, and here’s the official German self-employment page. France has its Skills and Talent card. (Sorry, you do have to dig for info. If anyone knows more, please let us know.)

Briefly, here are two other residency visa types, before I get to the big one.

The family visa, leading to citizenship. This is for you if you’re married to a citizen of another country, have kids born there or family members who live there.

The citizenship by ancestry visa. Again mentioned in my top 10 tips post. (Tip #7.)

5. Do I need a visa to retire overseas?

Yes, you do. If you think you’re ready for it.

Now first of all, many countries do not call this a retirement visa. You may come across the term ‘pensioner’s visa,’ as it’s often called in Latin America. Most EU countries do not call it either. Instead, it’s the long-stay tourist visa you’re looking at. (Though people do refer to it informally as the retiree visa.)

No matter what a country calls it, you will have to prove you have a minimum amount in your bank or as monthly income.

Please note: your monthly income cannot be from employment. In that case, it wouldn’t be considered a retirement visa, would it? That said, your income can be from social security, a pension from a job, or income in the form of any sort of dividend.

And for those of us who might not have much of any of the above, here are some of the lower per-month minimums in Latin America: Columbia ($1035), Panama ($1000), Ecuador ($800) and Nicaragua ($650).

BTW, for the Nicaraguan and Belize pensionado visa, you only have to be 45 years old. In Panama and Ecuador, it’s 18 or older. I know. You’re 18 and a pensioner?

BTW #2. In most countries, married couples or families get a pro-rated monthly income. The first person on the permit has to have the full amount. Additional persons, less so.

And here are the cheapest per-months in Asia: Indonesia ($1500), Cambodia ($1335), Vietnam ($1000) and the Philippines ($800).

As for the EU long-stay tourist visa, I don’t believe the minimum amount is standardized. It could be in some countries, you’ll just have to check. I have read that the minimum amount may be up to the discretion of a particular consulate, or depend on the cost of living in your destination city or village. To see how confusing this can be, you might want to look at this thread.

Okay, that’s it.  The minimum (and probably more) that you need to know about visas. I’m working on another post: what we Americans need to know about residency in Canada and Mexico… I think I’ll put it next.

Meanwhile, if you have any other info for us, or if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please let me know.

Thanks again.

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