25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 5

Passports and Visas

History  Applying for  Visas, Onward Tickets, and Sufficient Funds

A PASSPORT DECLARES citizenship of a country and grants the right to leave that country. The earliest were letters issued by a king or sultan referencing the traveler's character and requesting passage and favorable treatment. The current system came into wide use during World War I when governments restricted travel due to spy paranoia. Before then many Europeans could come and go without securing permission from any government.

American passports now read:

The Secretary of State
of the United States of America
hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/
national of the United States named herein to pass
without delay or hindrance and in case of need to
give all lawful aid and protection

Which sure sounds swell. (Although might our poet laureate pen a limerick with power words like Air Force, Marines, and Big Guns?)1

The U.S. Government issues three types of passports: diplomatic, official, and regular. Diplomatic passports are for top staff at the State Department and Foreign Service, and confer prosecutorial immunity from laws of other countries. Official passports go to other government workers who don't qualify for diplomatic passports, but deserve extra status in lieu of higher pay. Regular passports are for the rest of us.

Note that many countries will not issue visas for passports with less than six months of validity remaining, and that passports are the property of the issuing government, not the marvelous creature on the inside cover.

How to Apply for a United States Passport

Official information is available at travel.state.gov/passport_services, or call 202-647-0518. To obtain a passport, U.S. citizens must present the following in person to a designated post office, a designated clerks of court, or one of thirteen regional passport agencies (in Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Stamford, and Washington, D.C.)

  1. Proof of U.S. citizenship. This can be a previous passport or a certified (with a raised seal stamped into the paper) copy of your birth certificate.
  2. Two identical two-inch square photos, color or black and white, with a white background, and a facial image size between one and one and 3/8 inches.
  3. Proof of identification, with a photo and signature, such as a driver's license or student ID.
  4. Fee of $60 for sixteen years old and over, $40 for under sixteen.
  5. A completed but unsigned form DSP-11. The appropriate authority must witness your signature when you present it. This form is available from post offices, or by calling Passport Services.

Normal processing takes up to four weeks. Rush services cost extra. Passports are valid for ten years, or until age sixteen. Second passports may be available if traveling to Israel and certain Arab countries which boycott visitors to Israel. Twenty-four pages is the normal-sized passport, forty-eight pages if requested. Additional pages can be added later for free.

Always keep your passport in a hidden money belt next to your skin. Passports have black market value, and are trouble to replace. Store a trimmed photocopy of the first two pages in one or two other locations.

Grandmother's House Photo: After briefly studying this photo my great aunt exclaimed, "That's my house!" When she last saw it eighty years ago she was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I found it (with the aid of a local who had worked in Chicago for ten years) in a village in what is now southeastern Poland.

Visas, Onward Tickets, and Sufficient Funds

A visa is a stamp or piece of paper placed in your passport granting permission to enter a certain country, and issued by that country. Depending on the country and your nationality, visas may be obtained at the border at time of entry, or in advance through that country's consulate or embassy.

Many heavily-touristed countries, including all of Western Europe, only require United States citizens to have a valid passport at time of entry. They want to make it easy for tourists to spend money.

Following are terms and sample visa rules for U.S. citizens. For official information only rely on a call to a consulate or embassy, or perusal of a government web site.

Canada requires Americans to have official identification (such as a driver's license) and sufficient funds, while Mexico requires only official identification for visits within twenty-six kilometers of the border, but if traveling to the interior issues a $15 visitor card at checkpoints or tacked onto airfare. It is valid for 180 days.

If an American lands in Bangkok without a visa, she is automatically granted a free transit visa valid for fifteen days, provided she also has an airline ticket out of the country. If she gets a visa from a Thai embassy or consulate in advance of landing, she can get permission for thirty, sixty, or ninety days of stay from the date of entry, and the onward ticket requirement is waived. This visa costs $25.

United States citizens arriving at the Guatemalan frontier (international term for border) with a valid passport are granted visas good for thirty days, with a variable "tax" charged on entry and exit. This is usually just a few dollars. Guatemalan visas are single entry, which means if you leave the country you must get another visa to re-enter, and pay another "tax."

Indian visas, on the other hand, are multiple entry--you can leave and re-enter on the same visa. This is useful for making a side-trip to Nepal or Tibet. Call the Indian embassy in your country's capital to get the latest visa information. They will send a four-page application which you return by registered mail, along with your passport and the appropriate fee ($50 for a six-months validity). Your passport is then returned with the visa inside. Normally this takes about two weeks, although next-day processing may be possible for an extra $14.

If visas for several countries are required you may need to start the process several months before departure. An important consideration for Indian visas is validity begins from date of issue, not from when you eventually get to India.

Visa extensions may or may not be possible from within a country. Since extensions usually require some bureaucratic shenanigans, many travelers prefer to leave the country and then re-enter.

While New Zealand doesn't require Americans to have a visa in advance of landing there, they do require a return or onward ticket, and a valid visa for that next country if required by that country. Since I was going on to Australia, I had to get an Australian visa while still in the U.S. At that time Australia also required a return or onward ticket for entry, so I bought a ticket from Darwin, Australia, to Kupang, Indonesia while in New Zealand. This is the cheapest onward ticket out of Australia at $150.

While Indonesia also requires an onward ticket for entry, many backpackers buy an inexpensive one upon landing at the Indonesian airport. They then cash it in later as they travel on by bus, train, or ferry.

It's wise to look respectable when applying for a visa, since no country is obligated to grant entry. Some countries require travelers have sufficient funds to support themselves, and may request to see credit cards or travelers' checks. Sometimes a couple of passport-sized photos are also required.

Sufficient funds can be an issue at some borders. New Zealand wants backpackers to have about US$15 per day of intended stay, while Canada wants Americans coming down from Alaska to have "enough" to make it through the country. I could only shake my head sadly while a fellow hitchhiker who had been on the road all over North and South America for two years was denied entry into Canada at the Alaska border because he had only $75. (A long haul back to the slime factory for him, and he was planning under-the-table work in Canada.)

If you have a credit card--even if it's maxed--you probably won't have a problem with sufficient funds, at least at the border. In my experience most countries with sufficient funds requirements have waved me through without checking my financial situation. Of course I usually make a point to shave and put on my best shirt when crossing frontiers. If you don't have a credit card, at least bring something plastic like an old Columbia House Compact Disc membership card. After all, if they would trust you to buy six more CD's over three years...

A note on the visa application may state that if any questions are answered incorrectly or left blank, "the application will probably be rejected." That may be true, so if you scrawl "micro expenditure economist" for employment, you might want to be able to give it some back up. Author wearing lucky shirt
Photo: Author in lucky shirt.

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1. Or democracy, idealism, and good will. back