Written by: Colin
Visas were by far the most challenging piece of planning for travel. We wish we’d started collecting these a year sooner instead of wasting time with Pokemon Go. Visas take a lot of precise planning, paperwork, and can get very expensive. We learned a lot of lessons in planning and tricks to help others out in the future. Another challenge is that countries are constantly changing their requirements. Reciprocity is the standard where if the US charges another country’s citizens to enter the US or has a lot of paperwork requirements, that country will do the same for American citizens. The era of Trump made visas even less predictable as countries mirror the travel limitations Trump enacts.
We collected visa requirement information for every country that’s reasonably safe to visit from the US State Department website and each country’s US embassy website. Be prepared for frustration and unclear requirements and translations. To acquire visas for these 160 countries, it would’ve costed us about $6,000 each for just the fees on the visas, not including any additional expedite fees, photos, and mailing costs. Many countries give you the option of acquiring a visa at the border or online. In this post though, we’ll focus on the countries that require you to get a visa in advance by mailing your passport to embassies or consulates. At the time of this post, about 40 countries require visas in advance with varied requirements for application time frames, paperwork, and itineraries. For those visas, you must send off your visa to an embassy or have someone personally walk in the passport. Those 40 countries account for $4,100 of the visa costs and most were in Central Asia and Africa. We rearranged our macro travel plans to give us more time to acquire visas and scaled back our expectations for what’s feasible or within the budget.
Get a Second US Passport
If you need more than 5 visas or are in a rush, get a second US passport as soon as possible. It’s not advertised or common but the US allows folks to get a second passport to help with visas and to strategically use certain passports in certain countries to avoid being blocked in the Middle East after visiting Israel. The second passport is only good for 2 years and costs the same as a standard passport renewal ($110 each). There are accurate instructions for the steps online. Google these and follow them precisely.
With a second passport, you can travel with one passport while the other is sent around to collect visas for your next continent. The tricky part is shipping around the world and making sure you use the right passport in the right order at border crossings to not freak out border patrol personnel. There are also clear guides on Google for how to do this.
Since it takes so long to collect visas for western African countries, we mapped out our plan to travel with our primary 10 year passport while the secondary passport collects visas for a year straight. We’ll coordinate shipping the passports internationally to family friends in Israel and then travel with the 2 passports thereafter. The additional benefit here is that even with passports with additional pages, we’re concerned about running out of space since many countries require 2 open pages for visas and additional space for stamps. Two passports with extra pages assuages this concern.
Itineraries for Visa Applications
Many countries require an itinerary with plane flights and some even require hotel information. If you are planning a long trip with multiple countries, you shouldn’t have flights booked and dates set in stone yet in order to give yourself some flexibility. This presents a big paperwork challenge for getting visas. You have a couple options for satisfying this paperwork requirement. First, I’ve read that it’s not necessary to actually book a flight and you can use screen shots of potential itineraries from Google Flights for instance but have not tried this because we don’t have the time to risk a visa rejection. Second, you can actually book the flight and get a real itinerary and ticket number and then cancel the flight for a refund. It’s now an FAA requirement that air travel passengers have the ability to cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking for a full refund. I’ve heard of friends using this rule to purchase a flight, use the real itinerary for paperwork, then cancel the flight within 24 hours for a full refund. This tactic requires a credit card with a large enough cap to float multiple expensive plane flights. If you don’t have the credit flexibility, there’s an industry that’s popped up to help. There are a few companies who take on the credit risk for a fee to the traveler. They book the flight and/or hotel so that you have a real ticket number and you pay them $5 to $10 for the service.
A few more miscellaneous tips:
Sara & Colin
We are figuring out our travel as we go along, and we'd love to help you out with yours! Here are some tips, tricks, and how-to guides.