NB: The info here is from early 2008, as part of the series on my 2008 RTW trip. Some of the information might not be relevant any more. For example, the CA-4 countries are now visa-free, and Mexico allows in anyone with a valid US visa.
Ah, the tourist visa – the bane of independent travel. I really don’t understand the need for restrictive visa policies. I don’t mind furnishing proof of my travel plans, financial status etc., but why make it difficult? Tourists spend money, why not welcome them with open arms? But anyway, that’s a topic for another day. Let’s talk about visas.
While travellers from some countries can pack their bags, buy their tickets and fly to a vast majority of countries without a second thought, the sad reality for the majority of the world is the restrictive weight of the tourist visa. No destination planning is possible without knowing the Visa situation. What do I need to get the visa? How much does it cost? Do I have to get it in India, or can I get it in a neighbouring country? How far in advance can I apply? You will need to know the answers to all these questions before you can even think of travelling. My goal was to cover as many visa-free countries as possible.
Different types useful visas for Indian citizens:
Do not assume that you need a tourist visa. Sometimes another visa will suffice and could even be easier and cheaper to obtain.
- Airport Transit Visa: An ATV is required by some countries when you’re on a connecting flight that that lands in their territory. Sometimes an ATV is needed even if no change of planes is required. ATVs are typically issued for a maximum duration of 24-48 hours and do not entitle the visa holder to exit the international transit area of the airport (the area before the immigration checkpoints).
- Transit Visa: A transit visa is issued to travellers who wish to transit through the country itself, either for a change in airports, land crossings, etc. and, depending on the individual visa policy, can allow the holder to transit through the territory over a period of 24 hrs to upto 30 days. (India, for example, issues 15-day transit visas). A transit visa can NOT be used to return to the same country that you came from.
- Tourist Visa: Even though it is the most common type of visa, tourist visa requirements (and prices) vary wildly from one country to the next. While some issue tourist visas on arrival, others require a protracted and ridiculous documentation (such as an invitation letter) and can only be obtained from your country of residence. While some are ridiculously cheap (Pakistan – 15 Rs!) or free (Argentina), others can be prohibitively expensive (UK, Belize).
- Working Holiday Visa: The working holiday concept is sadly not applicable to Indian travellers. UK used to issue working holiday visas to Indians until 2008, but we are now no longer eligible for the program.
- Visit To Family/Friends: Many countries include this under the tourist visa but some differentiate the tourist and personal visit visas. Such a visa requires an invitation letter from a citizen or resident of your destination and usually some extra documentation to prove the sponsor’s financial status.
- Student Visa: In many situations, a student visa might be more appropriate and easier to obtain. If you’re travelling to Europe (Esp. France/Spain), the Arab World, South America, China etc. and want to learn the language, you might want to enroll in a language school and get a student visa for 2-3 months. And then, using one central city as a base, you can explore the surrounding region while still learning the language. In some cases, your student visa might even entitle you to work for several hours each week!
Organizing the visas before leaving
I searched travel websites, websites of Ministries of External Affairs, called embassies and otherwise gathered the information that I needed. I made an excel sheet listing visa requirements for a large number of countries (which I will share here soon), and started to either deal with or eliminate the more problematic ones.
The US, UK and the Schengen visa are the most difficult visas to get, and you can only get them from your country of residence. So the first thing I did was get a US visa. After that I went for the UK “Working Holidaymakers Visa” that I mentioned earlier. With these two expensive visas in the bag, I started looking out for what else I might need. Getting a Schengen Visa was quite impossible as you can’t apply more than 3 months in advance! My first few destinations were Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Canada (transit only) and the USA. While Singapore had a 4-day visa free transit facility, Macau and Hong Kong are both visa-free for 30 and 15 days respectively. South Korea too, are quite gracious in that you can spend up to one month in South Korea on the way to or from Japan! The Japanese visa, at 7 $ was the cheapest visa that I ever purchased. I had also obtained a Turkish visa as part of an ill-advised initial plan, but it was doomed to remain unused.
Obtaining visas on the road
With the exception of a few stubborn countries who require you to get your visa before leaving your country of residence, most allow you to obtain tourist/transit visas at their embassy in a neighbouring country. I decided to get my Latin American visas from the US or other countries in my path. Mexico could prove difficult, but they had a free of cost 30-day transit visa. And as a bonus, the four countries in CA-4 (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador) had a common visa, and Costa Rica was visa-free for those who hold a US visa!
It was now the end of February 2008 and the time was approaching for me to leave Jakarta, my last day at work being 5th March. The only visa remaining for now was Canada and I thought I could easily get it in Hong Kong or Singapore, as I only needed a transit visa. From the US I planned to go southwards in June. Mexico at that point of time seemed to be difficult, but most of the other countries seemed friendly and I decided to worry about those visas when I got there.