Formalities at Vietnam’s international airports are generally smoother than at land borders. That said, crossing overland from Cambodia and China is now relatively stress-free. Crossing the border between Vietnam and Laos can be slow.

Customs Regulations

Enter Vietnam by air and the procedure usually takes a few minutes. If entering by land, expect to attract a bit more interest, particularly at remote borders. Duty limits:

  • 400 cigarettes
  • 1.5 litres of spirit
  • Large sums of foreign currency (US$5000 and greater) must be declared.

Passports

Your passport must be valid for six months upon arrival in Vietnam. Many nationalities need to arrange a visa in advance.

Visas

Some nationalities need a visa in advance for all visits, some don't. The standard length of stay for tourist visas is 30 days; for visa-exempt nationalities it is 15 days.

Types of Visas

The (very complicated) visa situation has recently changed for many nationalities, and is fluid – always check the latest regulations.

Firstly, if you are staying more than 15 days and from a Western country, you'll still need a visa (or approval letter from an agent) in advance. If your visit is less than 15 days, some nationalities are now visa-exempt (for a single visit, not multiple-entry trips).

Tourist visas are valid for either 30 days or 90 days. A single-entry 30-day visa costs US$20, a three-month multiple-entry visa is US$70. Only United States nationals are able to arrange one-year visas.

Until recently there have been two methods of applying for a visa: a Visa on Arrival (VOA) via online visa agents; or via a Vietnamese embassy or consulate. That is changing as e-visas have been rolled out (for a limited number of nationalities).

Visa on Arrival (VOA)

Visa on Arrival (VOA) is the preferred method for most travellers arriving by air, since it's cheaper, faster and you don't have to part with your passport by posting it to an embassy. Online visa agencies email the VOA to you directly.

It can only be used if you are flying into any of Vietnam's six international airports, not at land crossings. The process is straightforward: you fill out an online application form and pay the agency fee (around US$20). You'll then receive by email a VOA approval letter signed by Vietnamese immigration that you print out and show on arrival, where you pay your visa stamping fee in US dollars, cash only. The single-entry stamping fee is US$25, a multiple-entry stamping fee is US$50.

There are many visa agents, but there are some inefficient cut-priced operators out there. It's recommended to stick to well-established companies; the following two are professional and efficient:

Vietnam Visa Choice (www.vietnamvisachoice.com) Online support from native English-speakers. This agency also guarantees your visa will be issued within the time specified.

Vietnam Visa Center (www.vietnamvisacenter.org) Competent all-rounder with helpful staff well briefed on the latest visa situation. Offers a two-hour express service for last-minute trips.

Visas via an Embassy or Consulate

You can also obtain visas through Vietnamese embassies and consulates around the world, but fees are normally much higher than using a visa agent and (depending on the country) the process can be slow. In Asia, Vietnamese visas tend to be issued in two to three working days in Cambodia. In Europe and North America it takes around a week.

E-visas

A pilot e-visa program introduced in early 2017 allows visitors to apply for visas online through the Vietnam Immigration Department. Citizens of 40 countries are eligible, including those from the UK and the USA (though not Australians, Canadians or New Zealanders).

E-visas are single-entry only, valid for 30 days (nonextendable), and cost US$25. Processing takes three to five days.

However this e-visa system has not exactly been efficiently implemented. The official website is glitch-prone and often fails to load. We've also heard of several cases where applications have gone AWOL and photos rejected for not being picture-perfect.

There have been reports of visitors being deported due to incorrect details (such as wrong date of birth or mispelt names) on the online application form. If you do apply for an e-visa, double-check that all the information you provide is 100% accurate.

E-visas can be applied for online at www.immigration.gov.vn.

Visa-exempted Nationalities

At this time, citizens of the following countries do not need to apply in advance for a Vietnamese visa (when arriving by either air or land) for certain lengths of stay. Always double-check visa requirements before you travel as policies change regularly.

Myanmar, Brunei

Days

14

Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, UK

Days

15

Philippines

Days

21

Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore,Thailand

Days

30

Multiple-Entry Visas

It’s possible to enter Cambodia or Laos from Vietnam and then re-enter Vietnam without having to apply for another visa. However, you must hold a multiple-entry visa before you leave Vietnam.

Single-entry visas can no longer be changed to multiple-entry visas inside Vietnam.

Visa Extensions

Tourist visa extensions officially cost as little as US$10, and have to be organised via agents. The procedure takes seven to 10days and you can only extend the visa for 30 (US$40) or 60 (US$60) days depending on the visa you hold.

You can extend your visa in big cities, but if it's done in a different city from the one you arrived in (oh the joys of Vietnamese bureaucracy!), it'll cost you US$50 to US$70. In practice, extensions work most smoothly in HCMC, Hanoi, Danang and Hue.

It's possible but not at all practical for travellers using a visa exemption to extend their stay at the end of the visa-exemption (around US$35). But this can take up to 10 working days and you need to give up your passport during this time so it's not a useful option at all.