Compared to just about any moment in the past, modern travel is incredibly easy, especially for someone with an ultra-privileged passport like the US or UK. However, it’s still necessary to do your homework and get your ducks in a row to have a smooth trip. Below are a few of the categories of paperwork you might need in order to enter a given country – always check the web for the latest information on your destination.
Visas and Entry Authorizations
Many Americans are used to landing in a country, getting a passport stamp, and moving on with the trip. That’s the typical experience when heading to Europe for example. However, that’s never been the case when traveling in much of the world, and the norm will soon be shifting for Europe as well.
At a minimum, countries are increasingly requiring some sort of travel authorization document. Starting at the end of 2023, Schengen Zone countries (most of Europe) will begin requiring US citizens to have an ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) approval. This generally involves filling out some paperwork before traveling and then paying a small fee. Within a few days you’ll get an approval document (assuming they don’t have a reason to deny you) which will be electronically tied to your passport number.
These types of travel authorization can usually be obtained quickly – often there’s even a way to do it upon landing in exchange for paying a penalty fee. But they are one more thing to remember, and frustrating or trip-derailing if you forget. ETIAS in particular is partially retaliation for how hard the US makes it for Europeans to visit.
The next category of travel authorizations are Visa on Arrival (VoA). Many countries have a VoA system, which will also involve filling in some paperwork and sometimes paying a fee. Often you can fill out and print the paperwork in advance, to avoid scrounging for a pen while in the midst of immigration control. In many countries (Mexico for example) it’s mostly a formality – a way for them to collect a bit of information on the reason for your visit and where you’re staying. In other countries, it’ll be a lengthier process, but still one completed while you wait at the airport. The risk of course is that if you’re denied entry, you need to figure out how to get out of a country you can’t legally enter.
The final category is a true visa. This can be a lengthier, more expensive process. I generally recommend working on your visa paperwork the moment you book your flights, and always at least a couple months in advance. Some countries have moved to e-visa systems, where you can complete the process online and get a digital verification. Other countries still require you to either visit an embassy or consulate in person, or to mail your passport off and hope it comes back. If you can swing it, I always prefer doing it in person.
Visa applications vary dramatically, depending on the country and the reason for your visit. Generally they’ll want to know where you’re staying, how long you’re staying for, as well as some information about your background and job. Some countries still require a formal invitation from a host or guide. This can be tricky for self-catering tourists, though generally a bit of time spent on the TripAdvisor forums or Facebook groups will help clarify your path forward.
The visa process can often be confusing and poorly documented on embassy websites. I’ve consistently had good luck calling and getting help from a real person. At the end of the process, you’ll end up with a cool visa glued in your passport, which is a fun souvenir.
Some countries are still requiring proof of travel insurance in order to enter as a tourist. Often this is a COVID requirement which is still in place. When I need travel insurance, I use World Nomads – they’re affordable, reputable, and it’s easy to buy.
International Driving License
The international driving license is a bit of a scam, but it’s a requirement if you want to drive in many countries. Essentially it involves paying someone to transcribe the text from your driving license to a piece of paper which has the words like “NAME” and “BIRTHDATE” translated into a variety of other languages. If you’re renting a car abroad, it’s worth having, no matter how silly it seems. In the US, AAA offices can provide them for a modest fee.
A Few Last Thoughts
Print copies of everything. E-Visas, proof of travel insurance, itineraries, etc. If there’s some kind of glitch and the electronic system isn’t able to find proof of your material, at least you’ll have some evidence that you’re in the right.
I also always bring at least one copy of my passport. Many countries still require hotels and residences to make a copy of your passport. If their copier is broken, they may ask to hold on to your passport while they wait for a repair-person or take it to a copy shop – I’d much rather hand them a copy. It’s also a very good piece of documentation if your passport happens to get lost or stolen during a trip.