As we all know, a visa is more than a superb addition to your passport, allowing you to reminisce on past voyages as you flip through the pages. It is also an official document granted by a foreign country, giving you permission to enter that country for a specified period of time.

So how do you find out if you need one for your next trip, and how do you go about getting one? With Lonely Planet’s visa Q&A, you’ll be primed for paperwork perfection.

Are all visas the same?

No, each country deals with visitors differently. Some countries issue specific visas for specific visitors (Tourist visas, Business, Student, Journalist, and so on). Some visas are valid for a few days, some several months; some for single entry into a country, others for multiple entries (important if you plan to hop over international borders and back). Costs vary, application processes vary. Some countries don’t require you to have a visa at all, such as EU countries (provided you're a citizen of one of 39 qualifying countries and your stay is for less than 90 days - for more details, check out our Schengen guide here).

So how do I know if I need one?

Research thoroughly. The onus is on you to find out whether you need a visa - not your airline, travel agent or mum. Regulations change frequently, so don’t rely on random Googling. Go direct to the embassy website of the country you are planning to visit. This will have the most up-to-date information, plus a phone number you can call for more information.

You can also seek advice from your government. For instance, for British citizens the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office offers detailed travel advice (including visa requirements) on every country. US citizens can check the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

There are also commercial visa companies that will arrange the paperwork for you, for a fee. Even if you decide not to pay for their services, you can use their information - input your details into their up-to-date database of visa requirements to check whether you require a visa.

What information will I need to give to get a visa?

Typically you’ll need to fill out a form (often downloadable from your destination country’s website). This will ask basic questions (name, date of birth, profession, passport number, intended dates of travel, and so on). It may also ask for a contact address within your destination country - your first night’s accommodation will often suffice.

What else do I need to do?

You’ll likely need to send off your passport (use special/recorded delivery); do this in good time and when you have no other travel plans - you could be without your passport for several weeks.

Other requirements may include passport-sized photos (taken to strict specifications, and sometimes signed on the back by a respected professional), details of your itinerary and health records. You will also need to pay a visa fee.

Some visas are notoriously complicated. Obtaining a Russian visa, for instance, is expensive and involves filling out a lengthy and incredibly detailed online form; you will also need a Letter of Invitation from someone in Russia (a hotel or travel agency). Conversely, some are very straightforward; for example, most EU citizens visiting Australia can apply for an eVisitor visa by filling in a free and simple online form.

Where do I get a visa?

Generally, you apply for visas online, by post or in person from the embassy of your destination country. You can also instruct a visa agency to obtain the visa for you (for a fee).

Some countries issue visas on arrival: you fill in a form and pay your fee at your entry airport or land border. First, double check this is actually permissible. Also, weigh up the hassle – would it save time to apply for the visa before arrival?

If you can obtain a visa on arrival, ensure you’re carrying everything required, such as the right fee (in the right currency), passport photos (if requested) and so on.

When do I get it?

If you can’t get one on arrival, organise your visa well in advance of travel - processing time can vary from a few days to a few months. Some countries may offer an ‘express’ service - this sees your application processed in as little as a day, but significantly increases the cost.

Be aware that in some instances it does not pay to get your visa too far in advance. Some visas are valid from the date of issue rather than the date of arrival in that country so obtaining a visa months before travel would limit the time you can spend on the ground.

What if I overstay my welcome?

Don’t: it will only cause you headaches. You won’t get hunted down the second your visa expires, the problems will arise when you get to passport control. Rules vary between countries, and depending on how long you have overstayed your visa and what type of visa it is, but you may well be banned from entering that country again for a set period - possibly forever. So don’t risk being denied a return to your dream destination, and don’t taint your trip with a messy exit at border control: a little bit of research can allow you to cross borders with no nasty surprises.

This article was first published in November 2011 and was refreshed in June and August 2012.

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