A visa (short for the Latin carta visa, lit. "a document that has been seen") is a document issued by a country giving an individual permission to formally request entrance to the country during a given period of time and for certain purposes (see below for caveats and exceptions) and usually stamped or glued inside of a passport, or sometimes issued as separate pieces of paper.
Many countries require possession of a valid passport and visa as a condition of entry for foreigners, though there exist exemptions (see below for examples of such schemes).
Visas are associated with the request for permission to enter (or exit) a country, and are thus, for some countries, distinct from actual formal permission for an alien to enter and remain in the country.
Some countries require that their citizens, and sometimes foreign travelers, obtain an exit visa in order to be allowed to leave the country.
Conditions of issue
Some visas can be granted on arrival or by prior application at the country's embassy
, or sometimes through a specialized travel agency with permission from the issuing country in the country of departure. If there is no embassy or consulate in one's home country, then one would have to travel to a third country (or apply by post) and try to get a visa issued there. The need or absence of need of a visa generally depends on the citizenship of the applicant, the intended duration of the stay, and the activities that the applicant may wish to undertake in the country he visits; these may delineate different formal categories of visas, with different issue conditions.
Some countries have reciprocal visa regimes: if Country A requires citizens of Country B to have a visa to travel there, then Country B may apply reciprocity and require a visa from citizens of Country A. Likewise, if A allows B's citizens to enter without a visa, B may allow A's citizens to enter without a visa.
Examples of such reciprocal visa regimes are between:
A fee may be charged for issuing a visa; these are typically also reciprocal, so if country A charges country B's citizens 50 USD for a visa, country B will often also charge the same amount for country A's visitors. The fee charged may also be at the discretion of each embassy. A similar reciprocity often applies to the duration of the visa (the period in which one is permitted to request entry of the country) and the amount of entries one can attempt with the visa. Expedited processing of the visa application for some countries will generally incur additional charges.
This reciprocal fee has gained prominence in recent years with resentment by some countries of the United States charging nationals of various countries a visa processing fee (up to $131, non-refundable, even if a visa is not issued). A number of countries, including Brazil, Chile and Turkey have reciprocated; China and Russia, among others, require visas of US citizens, but also of European and other citizens, so their fee is not purely "reciprocal." Brazil requires an advance visa before entry into the country, and that a US citizen be fingerprinted and photographed on arrival --matching U.S. requirements for Brazilians and other foreigners. Of course, reciprocity often has a political, rather than an economic or practical aspect, since there are far more residents of Brazil or Turkey who overstay their U.S. visas than vice versa, and this reciprocity hampers both tourism and business travel. Ukraine, for example, abolished its reciprocal visa and fee requirements in 2006, resulting in a substantial increase in both business and tourist travel to Ukraine; thus the benefits of having no reciprocity outweighed the "benefits" of political posturing.
The issuing authority, usually a branch of the country's foreign ministry or department (e.g. U.S. State Department), and typically consular affairs officers, may request appropriate documentation from the applicant. This may include proof that the applicant is able to support himself in the host country (lodging, food), proof that the person hosting the applicant in his or her home really exists and has sufficient room for hosting the applicant, proof that the applicant has obtained health and evacuation insurance, etc. Some countries ask for proof of health status, especially for long-term visas; some countries deny such visas to persons with certain illnesses, such as AIDS. The exact conditions depend on the country and category of visa. Notable examples of countries requiring HIV tests of long-term residents are the USA, Russia and Uzbekistan. However, in Uzbekistan, the HIV test requirement is sometimes not strictly enforced.
Developed countries frequently demand strong evidence of intent to return to the home country, if the visa is for a temporary stay, and especially if the applicant is from a developing country, due to immigration concerns.
The issuing authority may also require applicants to attest that they have had no criminal convictions, or that they do not partake in certain activities (like prostitution or drug trafficking). Some countries will deny visas if the travelers passports show evidence of citizenship or travel to a country which is not recognized by that country. For example, some Muslim countries will not issue visas to nationals of Israel or those whose passports bear evidence of visiting Israel.
Types of visa
Types of visas include:
- transit visa, usually valid for 5 days or less, for passing through the country to a third destination.
- tourist visa, for a limited period of leisure travel, no business activities allowed. Some countries do not issue tourist visas. Saudi Arabia introduced tourist visas only in 2004 although it did (and still does) issue pilgrimage visas for Hajj pilgrims.
- business visa, for engaging in commerce in the country. These visas generally preclude permanent employment, for which a work visa would be required.
- temporary worker visa, for approved employment in the host country. These are generally more difficult to obtain but valid for longer periods of time than a business visa. Examples of these are the United States' H-1B and L-1 visas.
- on-arrival visa, granted immediately prior to entering the country, such as at an airport or border control post. This is distinct from not requiring a visa at all, as the visitor must still obtain the visa before they can even try to pass through immigration.
- spousal visa, granted to the spouse of a resident or citizen of a given country, in order to enable the couple to settle in that country. Examples include the United Kingdom's EEA family permit.
- student visa, which allows its holder to study at an institution of higher learning in the issuing country. Students studying in Algeria, however, are issued tourist visas.
- working holiday visa, for individuals traveling between nations offering a working holiday program, allowing young people to undertake temporary work while traveling.
- diplomatic visa (sometimes official visa), is normally only available to bearers of diplomatic passports.
- courtesy visa issued to representatives of foreign governments or international organizations who do not qualify for diplomatic status but do merit expedited, courteous treatment.
- journalist visa, which some countries require of people in that occupation when traveling for their respective news organizations. Countries which insist on this include Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the United States (I-visa) and Zimbabwe.
- Marriage visa, granted for a limited period prior to intended marriage based on a proven relationship with a citizen of the destination country. For example, a German woman who wishes to marry an American man would obtain a Fiancee Visa (also known as a K-1 visa) to allow her to enter the United States. "A K1 Fiancee Visa is valid for four months from the date of its approval.
- immigrant visa, granted for those intending to immigrate to the issuing country. They usually are issued for a single journey as the holder will, depending on the country, later be issued a permanent resident identification card which will allow the traveler to enter to the issuing country an unlimited number of times. (for example, the United States Permanent Resident Card)...
- pensioner visa (also known as retiree visa or retirement visa), issued by a limited number of countries (Australia, Argentina, Thailand, Panama, etc.), to those who can demonstrate a foreign source of income and who do not intend to work in the issuing country. Age limits apply in some cases.
- Special Category Visa is a type of Australian visa granted to most New Zealand citizens on arrival in Australia. New Zealand Citizens may then permanently reside in Australia under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement.
Entry and duration period
Visas can also be single-entry, which means the visa is canceled as soon as the holder leaves the country, double-entry, or multiple-entry, permitting multiple entries into the country with the same visa. Countries may also issue re-entry permits that allow temporarily leaving the country without invalidating the visa. Even a business visa will normally not allow the holder to work in the host country without an additional work permit.
Once issued, a visa will typically have to be used within a certain period of time.
The validity of a visa is not the same as the authorized period of stay in the issuing country. The visa validity usually indicates when the alien can apply for entry to the country. For example, if a visa has been issued January 1 and expires March 30th, and the typical authorized period of stay in a country is 90 days, then the 90-day authorized stay starts on the day the passenger reaches the country, which has to be between January 1 and March 30th. The traveler could therefore stay in the issuing country until July 1st.
Once in the country, the validity period of a visa or authorized stay can often be extended for a fee at the discretion of immigration authorities. Overstaying a period of authorized stay given by the immigration officers is considered illegal immigration even if the visa validity period isn't over (i.e. for multiple entry visas) and a form of being "out of status" and the offender may be fined, prosecuted, deported, or even blacklisted from entering the country again.
Entering a country without a valid visa or visa exemption may result in detention and removal (deportation or exclusion) from the country. Undertaking activities that are not authorized by the status of entry (for example, working while possessing a non-worker tourist status) can result in the individual being deemed removable, in common speech an illegal alien. Such violation is not a violation of a visa, however despite the common misuse of the phrase, but a violation of status hence the term "out of status."
Even having a visa does not guarantee entry to the host country. The border crossing authorities make the final determination to allow entry, and may even cancel a visa at the border if the alien cannot demonstrate to their satisfaction that they will abide by the status their visa grants them.
Visa and immigration laws may be very different among countries. As such, aliens are advised to check with the relevant officials for visa and immigration laws governing the countries they wish to enter and eligibility to receive visas or other immigration benefits.
Many countries have a mechanism to allow the holder of a visa to apply to stay longer in that country. For example, in Denmark a visa holder can apply to the Danish Immigration Service for a Residence Permit after they have arrived in the Country. In the United Kingdom applications can be made to the UK Border Agency. In certain circumstances, it is not possible for the holder of the visa to do this, either because the country does not have a mechanism to prolong visas or, most likely, because the holder of the visa is using a short stay visa to live in a country. In such cases, the holder often engages in what is known as a visa run; leaving the country for a short period in order to apply for a new visa prior to their return or so that they can be given a fresh permission to stay when they re-enter. However, immigration officers can also deny re-entry under these circumstances, especially if done more than once as such acts may signify that the alien wishes to permanently reside or work in that country.
A visa may be denied for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to) if the applicant:
- has committed fraud or misrepresentation in his or her application
- has a criminal record or has criminal charges pending
- is considered to be a security risk
- cannot prove to have strong ties to their current country of residence
- intends to permanently reside or work in the country she/he will visit if not applying for an immigrant or work visa respectively
- does not have a legitimate reason for the journey
- has no visible means of sustenance
- does not have travel arrangements (i.e. transportation and lodging) in the destination country
- does not have a health/travel insurance valid for the destination and the duration of stay
- does not have a good moral character
- is applying on short notice
- had their previous visa application(s) rejected and cannot prove that the reasons for the previous denials no longer exist or are not applicable anymore
- is a citizen of a country with whom the host country has poor or non-existent relations
- has a communicable disease, such as tuberculosis
- has previous visa/immigration violations
- has a passport that expires too soon
- didn't use a previously issued visa at all without a valid reason (e.g. a trip cancellation due to a family emergency)
Visa exemption schemes
Possession of a valid visa is a condition for entry into many countries, however various exemption schemes do exist. In some cases visa-free entry may be granted to holders of diplomatic passports even as visas are required by normal passport holders (see: Passport
Some countries have reciprocal agreements such that a visa is not needed under certain conditions, e.g. when the visit is for tourism and for a relatively short period. One example of this is the Visa Waiver Program of the United States. Such reciprocal agreements may stem from common membership in international organizations or a shared heritage:
- All citizens of ECOWAS member states, excluding those defined by law as undesirable aliens, may enter and stay without a visa in any member state for a maximum period of 90 days. The only requirement is a valid travel document and international vaccination certificates.
- Nationals of the East African Community member states do not need visas for entry into any of the member states.
- Some countries in the Commonwealth do not require tourist visas of citizens of other Commonwealth countries.
- Some countries in the Association of South East Asia Nations do not require tourist visas of citizens of some Association of South East Asia Nations countries.(Except Myanmar, where its citizens are required visa to about 7 out of 10 countries.)
- Armenia and Uzbekistan allow citizens of CIS member states, except Turkmenistan (and Tajikistan to enter Uzbekistan), to enter visa-free as tourists.
Other countries may unilaterally grant visa-free entry to nationals of certain countries in order to facilitate tourism.
Some of the considerations for a country to grant visa-free entry to another country include (but are not limited to):
- being a low security risk for the country potentially granting visa-free entry
- having a low risk of overstaying or violating visa terms in the country potentially granting visa-free entry
Visa-free travel between countries also occurs in all cases where passports are not needed for such travel.
(For examples of passport-free travel, see International travel without passports.)
Normally visas are valid for entry only into the country which issued the visa. Countries that are members of regional organizations
or party to regional agreements may however issue visas valid for entry into some or all of the member states of the organization or agreement:
- the Schengen Visa may be the best-known example of a common visa. This visa has it origins in the 1985 Schengen Agreement among European states which allows for a common policy on the temporary entry of persons (including visas). The visa allows a tourist or visitor access to the area covered by the agreement (known as the “Schengen area” or “Schengenland”). Citizens of non-EU, non-EEA countries who wish to visit Europe as tourists, and who require a visa to enter the Schengen area, are simply required to get only the common Schengen Visa from the Embassy/Consulate of any of the Schengen countries. After this, they may visit any or all of the Schengen countries as tourists or for business without hindrance. They are not required to get separate visas for all the Schengen countries they wish to visit. If an alien is visiting multiple countries in the Schengen zone, he typically applies in the embassy/consulate of his main destination country (i.e. where he plans to stay the longest).
- the Central American Single Visa (Visa Única Centroamericana) was implemented by the CA-4 agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It is required for citizens of all other countries, eliminating the need for separate entry visas for each of the countries. Persons entering the region on Type "B" visas can enter the area through any Port of Entry. Persons entering on Type "C" visas (issued through prior consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) must enter through a Port of Entry in the country that issued the visa. Once a person has been admitted, they may travel onto any of the other countries and are allowed to stay through the date authorized at the original Port of Entry.
- An East African Single Tourist Visa is under consideration by the relevant sectoral authorities under the East African Community (EAC) integration program. If approved the visa will be valid for all three partner states in the EAC (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda). Under the proposal for the visa, any new East African single visa can be issued by any partner state's embassy. The visa proposal followed an appeal by the tourist boards of the partner states for a common visa to accelerate promotion of the region as a single tourist destination and the EAC Secretariat wants it approved before November's World Travel Fair (or World Travel Market) in London. When approved by the East African council of ministers, tourists could apply for one country's entry visa which would then be applicable in all regional member states as a single entry requirement initiative.
- The SADC UNIVISA (or Univisa) has been in development since SADC members signed a Protocol on the Development of Tourism in 1998. The Protocol outlined the Univisa as an objective so as to enable the international and regional entry and travel of visitors to occur as smoothly as possible. It was expected to become operational by the end of 2002. Its introduction was delayed and a new implementation date, the end of 2006, was announced. However, the SADC now aims to have the univisa system in place by 2008, before the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The univisa was originally intended to only be available, initially, to visitors from selected “source markets” such as Australia, the Benelux countries, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the USA. It is now expected that when the Univisa is implemented, that it will apply to non SADC international (long-haul) tourists travelling to and within the region and that it will encourage multi - destination travel within the region. It is also anticipated that the univisa will unlock the tourism potential of trans frontier parks by lowering the boundaries between neighboring countries in the parks. The visa is expected to be valid for all the countries with trans frontier parks (Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) and some other SADC countries (Angola and Swaziland).
Previous common visa schemes
These schemes no longer operate.
- the CARICOM Visa was introduced in late 2006 and allowed visitors to travel between 10 CARICOM member states (Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago). These 10 member countries had agreed to form a "Single Domestic Space" in which travelers would only have their passport stamped and have to submit completed, standardized entry and departure forms at the first port and country of entry. The CARICOM Visa was applicable to the nationals of all countries except CARICOM member states (other than Haiti) and associate member states, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the overseas countries, territories or departments of these countries. The CARICOM Visa could be obtained from the Embassies/Consulates of Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago and in countries which have no CARICOM representatives, the applications forms could be obtained from the Embassies/Consulates of the United Kingdom. The common visa was only intended for the duration of the Cricket World Cup and was discontinued on May 15, 2007. However, discussions are ongoing into instituting a revised CARICOM visa on a permanent basis in the future.
Some countries have exit visas, an individual permission to leave the country. This is often used to control the travel of the country's own citizens Sometimes this is needed for foreign citizens also. For example, in Russia
, an exit visa is needed, and is included in the normal visa for visitors. If the visitor stay longer time than the validity of the visa (the visa is valid only during the planned travel schedule), the exit visa becomes invalid, and a new exit visa must be applied for. This is not easy for visitors who can't speak Russian, and can take weeks.
Saudi Arabia is also known for having exit visas, particularly for foreign workers. Hence at the end of an alien's employment period, the alien concerned must secure clearance from his/her employer implying that the alien has satisfactorily fulfilled the terms of his/her employment contract or that the alien's services are no longer needed. The alien's exit visa can also be withheld if the alien has pending court charges that need to be settled or penalties that have to be meted out.