Obtaining visas for international travel can be more of a pain than getting a passport, and you’ll do it a lot more often. Luckily, there are folks who will help you — for a fee, naturally.
The most important travel document you’ll ever own is your passport. Number Two may well be those visa stamps imprinted in it.
A visa is essentially your hall pass to enter someone else’s country, so it stands to reason that governments would be careful in issuing them, especially in a post-9/11 world. Still, obtaining visas in advance of a trip can be a time-consuming, expensive headache, especially when dealing directly with foreign embassies.
I’ve heard some real horror stories from travelers trying to obtain simple tourist visas.
There are passport agencies, usually government offices, that can help you get your passport within a matter of several weeks — or for an extra charge, even faster. There also are privately-run passport expediters which, for an additional fee, can get your passport for you in a week or even less.
But you only have to go through the hassle of obtaining a new passport every ten years. You could need two, three or more visas in a single year. Wouldn’t it be great if there were services to help you cut through the aggravation of acquiring a visa?
Well, I just discovered that there are. They’re known as visa service agencies, and there are scores of them, if not hundreds, across the United States. A few examples include:
(NOTE: I pulled these outfits at random as examples of what’s available. Their listing here in no way represents an endorsement by IBIT.)
Some agencies provide visas for virtually any country requiring one from US visitors. Others specialize in certain countries or regions of the world. Several offer to expedite your passport, as well as visas, some in as little as 24 hours.
They may offer other services, too, such as notary public and/or power of attorney services to authenticate documents for legal use in other countries. They also may translate your legal documents from English into other languages.
A few things to bear in mind:
- Due diligence is the watchword here. Check out these agencies with the Better Business Bureau, travel trade organizations with codes of ethics, such as the American Society of Travel Agents, the US Tour Operators Association, the Global Business Travel Association, and anyone else you can think of. You are entrusting important personal documents to the care of strangers, so it behooves you to make sure that the agency itself is trustworthy.
- Being private, for-profit enterprises, the visa service agencies will be charging you a fee on top of what the government charges for the visa itself. The faster the service, the higher the fee.
- Each agency has its own way of doing things. Once you’ve chosen an agency to help you with your visa, make yourself familiar with their procedures beforehand, preferably by talking to a live human being who can explain the steps.
- In terms of the documentation required, applying for a visa is almost identical to applying for a passport. You’ll need proof of identity, proof of citizenship, and a couple of passport-sized photos of yourself.
- Unless there’s an agency in your town, you will have to mail the agency your passport or other required personal documents for processing. This makes some folks nervous but there’s no way around it — and in truth, passports move this way all the time, almost without incident.
One last thing, which could end up saving you money as well as time.
If you’re taking a package tour to a country that requires a visa, your tour providers may offer to obtain your visa for you (for a fee, of course). Check with a visa service agency to see if they can do it cheaper.
Bear in mind that you’ll have to pay the agency fee, the mailing costs and the visa application fee charged by the country you plan to visit. Even so, if you act early enough, you just might find that going through the agency for your visa is cheaper than the tour operator.
Remember too that he who hesitates pays more. There may be emergencies that suddenly crop up that leave you no choice, but that’s not most of us, most of the time. Don’t let procrastination cost you money that you could’ve brought with you on your trip.
THE ENTRY FEE AMBUSH
Even with your prepaid visa affixed to your passport, you still may have to crack open your wallet one more time before being admitted into the country you want to visit.
Many countries around the world charge entry fees just to enter the airport as a foreign visitor. These fees can range from a few bucks to well in access of $100 — per person.
It’s retaliation, and it has everything to do with 9/11.
After the World Trade Center attacks, the US government needed ways to fund its newly created Department of Homeland Security. One was to start charging entry fees to a wide range of foreign visitors, most of them from countries with no history of terrorism against the United States.
Most of the countries whose citizens were stung by these new fees answered with entry fees of their own, strictly for Americans. And like seemingly everything else in life, they have been creeping upward ever since.
Edited by P.A. Rice
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