Visa Regimes.

This note is about visas, what they are, types you can find, how to apply for one, pitfalls, planning and other stuff.

While on some occasions you can enter a country without any documentation, just ID or a passport, in the end travelling long distances overland you will eventually reach a country which requires you to have a visa.


A visa is evidence that your visit to the issuing country has been officially approved and that you are generally eligible to enter the country for a specific purpose. It does not guarantee entry. The final decision for that rests with the border officials.

Visa free entry

Many countries allow visa free entry but they only grant this to visitors from countries with whom they have a special relationship or mutual agreements and so on. In the latest (Oct 2010) Henley and Partners Biennial World Visa Restrictions Index, British passport holders can visit 166 countries visa free for 3 days or more. This is more than any other country.

Visa entry

Despite so many visa free countries, many still requiring visas always seem to be along the route of our overland journeys!

Visa Variations

These may vary from country to country - after all they decide the rules. You may come across the following

Visitor's visa
Tourist visa
Business visa
Transit visa
Student visa
and even a Missionary's visa

Single entry
Double entry
Multiple entries
Note all entries must fall within the specified time limits

Period of Visa
Specified period of days
Specified period of weeks
Specified period of months
Specified period of years
Specified dates

Period of validity from date of issue during which the visa may commence
Specified period of days
Specified period of weeks
Specified period of months

Note that the useage of the word month can be quite loose. It is often taken to mean 30 days so never assume you have 31 days in say July.

Visa Conditions

Before applying for a visa you should carefully research the terms on which it is issued. You can get information from the Consular or Visa section of the Embassy. You might run into a premium rate phone line if you try telephoning. You may get a better but delayed response by writing (not forgetting to ask for tourist and camp site information). Many embassies now have a website with all you need to know on line with downloadable documents. Many of these are in "pdf" format. However be aware that web sites are not always updated promptly.

Here are some typical variations to visa conditions. Sometimes you are not given the choice between the available time periods - if you get a visa then be thankful


A visa for India may be for a period of 6 months. However there is no validity period. The time starts immediately it is issued, so you only get the balance of the time from date of entry to the expiry date.

A visa for Azerbaijan is between specified dates at the outset. You request these dates on the application to suit yourself as long as they are not too far in advance.

Planning your Visas - before you leave

It is much easier to obtain all visas before you leave home. However this may not be possible, due to the various time limitations placed on the validity periods. In special circumstances it may be possible to obtain an extended validity period although you may have to contact the Consul himself. I was able to obtain a Chinese visa with a 4 month validity period when the normal period is only 3 months.

Arranging your visas before you leave means that you have planned your route so you will know the dates when you plan to enter and leave each country. It is vital to make sure the visas are valid for the appropriate dates and overlap your planned dates both on entry and exit. It is important to allow a good overlap although the period will depend on the conditions of each visa.

However it is best to have the visa start only a few days before your entry date. The visa final exit date should extend for a much longer period after your planned exit date. This allows you time to deal with any delays that may occur en route.


If you are leaving Pakistan and entering Iran with an intended date of entry of the 18th September, and say your 60 day Pakistan visa runs until the 20th October and say your 30 day Iranian visa has a 3 month validity period from 1st August to the 1st November.

In the event of a problem in Pakistan you could delay your scheduled date of leaving until the last minute and still retain the full 30 day period of the Iranian visa.

On the other hand if you are ahead of schedule then you can make use of the Iranian visa at any time from the 1st August.

In some circumstances it will be worth having double or multiple entry visas. It is not unknown that you may have to return the way you came. There may be unrest and the next country may become dangerous - war might even occur. Another reason may be the weather - which may result in snow and temperatures well below zero with impassable roads. When planning your trip some of these potential bottlenecks can be anticipated and multi entry visas obtained if you need to use an alternative route.

However I would comment that obtaining visas by post can be a protracted business particularly if you have a number of them to obtain. Application and collection in person is much quicker and may be an issue when the validity period of the visa is important. In such a case you may need to decide on the order the visas are obtained.

Planning your Visas - on the road

It may not be possible to get all your visas before you leave home. This may be for various reasons such as your planned itinerary is very flexible or the validity period will expire before you reach the border. The answer to this conundrum is to arrange your visa en route.

A few countries will permit you to obtain a visa on the border or if flying, at the airport when you have landed. However most countries don't issue visas on the border and it is necessary to obtain one in another country somewhere along your route. In some cases you can just turn up at the Embassy and follow the required procedure. Alternatively you may arrange you visa in one country and arrange to collect it in another country.

So the alternatives are:

  • Get the visas on the border.
  • Arrange the visa at the Embassy in a different country.
  • Collect the visa at a prearranged Embassy in a different country.

There was a time when for example you might have wanted to get a Pakistani visa in India but you would find there was no Embassy in India. This meant going into Nepal (who fortunately will issue a visa at the border) to the Pakistani Embassy in Kathmandu. Not forgetting of course that you would have to also visit the Indian Embassy to get another visa to drive to the only border post open to foreigners between India and Pakistan.

The point here is that you need to look forward along your intended route and discover what the rules are for the issue of visas and indeed where the embassies are situated. The rules are often complex and can contain some subtle variations on the basic themes. If you don't have the right visa to cross a border you may well be prevented from leaving the country or worse you may end up in no man's land without a valid visa to travel in either direction. This is extremely rare of course and hopefully the border officials will resolve the problem. If the time remaining on your current visa is short you may need to extend your current visa. Don't underestimate the potential difficulties. Leaving China to enter Kyrgyzstan in the west for example without the right visa may mean having to fly to Beijing - 3000 kms away.

Obtaining your Visas

The procedures for obtaining a visa range from the simple to the bizarre, from being easy to very complex. If you don't want to make all your own arrangements you can use a specialist company such as Travcour.

They will charge a fairly hefty fee to which you may have to add other expenses not forgetting the visa and postal fees. They do check the visa carefully but it is still your responsibility to give them the right information, fill up the relevant forms and so forth. All a specialist Company does is to make it easier and do the running around.

However there is no real need to use an agent unless you just do not have the time to make your own arrangements.

Obtaining your Visas - simple Visas

Normally you will need the following to get a visa.

Application Form - obtainable from the Consulate or Visa Section in person, by post or often it can be downloaded from the Internet.

Complete this carefully noting any special instructions. You may be required to use black ink, write in capitals or complete the form in duplicate (in which case don't just photocopy the first copy). Normally the application form is in the official language of the country and usually in English as well. There may be a separate English language form. Some questions may be a bit obscure - a common one for eastern countries is to ask your patronymic name (your father's surname or family name). It may be helpful to complete a photocopy of the blank form before transferring the answers to the original when you are happy with what you have written.

Once completed check it over and compare it with how others in your party have completed their own. Think carefully about the relevant dates you have put down.

You will almost certainly be asked to attach a photo to the application form. You can expect this to be the standard passport photo but sizes vary from country to country. The standard in Europe including the UK is 3.5cm x 4.5 cm whereas the USA and India require 2inches x 2 inches. The method of attachment may be specified - usually it is stapled or gummed onto the top right corner. Watch out for other requirements such as a signature on the reverse of the photo or additional photos. Finally take a photocopy or digital photo of the completed form for your records

Passport - this should be valid for at least 6 months after you expect to return home with sufficient blank pages for all the visas. Before you hand over the passport or send it in the post make sure you have a photocopy of the information page (the one with the photo) or better still a digital photo backed up in at least two places.

Check that you have signed the passport and completed the next of kin page. Lack of a signature might result in your application being rejected. The address on the next of kin page may result in the passport finding its way back to you if it should be lost.

If posting the passport, send it by recorded delivery or preferably by special delivery or registered post. You may have cover for loss of a passport if by this point in your arrangements you have taken out a travel insurance policy.

If handing the passport into the Embassy personally make sure you get a numbered receipt.

Payment - the method of payment will normally be given precisely and is often in cash. The currency used may be that country's own currency, local currency, the currency of the applicant's country, US dollars or even Euros. It is not uncommon to require payment to be made into a local bank. The passport and visa is then processed on production of the paying in document. A few Embassies now accept credit of debit cards often with an extra charge. The cost of the visa varies with type and often with the nationality of the applicant and may even depend on where the application is made.

Obtaining your Visas - more complicated Visas

All the simple visa comments above apply in more complicated situations which are many and varied. Here are some examples

Letter of Invitation (LOI) - some countries require you have a LOI from an organisation or person resident in the country. This is not as difficult to achieve as it sounds. There are plenty of Travel Agents around the world with web sites offering this service. Find one in the country you are visiting and contact them by email. They will send the letter to you by fax or email. Payment is sometimes more complicated but they will tell you how this should be done.

Sometimes the LOI is not issued by the Travel Agents themselves. It is often a Government Department that issues the letter although you may not be aware of this as the Travel Agent acts as an intermediary.

The cost of a LOI may be as low as £10, but it may cost you up to £200 where a corrupt Government official has to be bought (the Travel Agent will deal with this).

In some cases there is no actual letter as a reference number is issued.

When making your visa application just include the LOI or the reference number. Don't forget to photocopy the LOI.

One point to bear in mind is that although you may obtain the letter of invitation in the UK you do not necessarily have to apply for the visa in the UK - for example on one occasion I had all the arrangements for entry to China made in the UK, but I applied for the visa in Islamabad, Pakistan. If you wish to do this make sure you tell the Travel Agent where you wish to collect the visa as some countries allow you to apply anywhere without restriction, whereas others specify which Consulate you have to attend.

Letters of Introduction - this may be a simple letter from a supporting organisation in your own country such as your Motor Caravan Club usually at little or no cost or one from your employer to confirm you are an employee.

However there is another type of Letter of Introduction that is occasionally required. This arises when you apply for a visa outside your own country and the country you are applying to wants some further evidence of identity. You will have to go to your own embassy to get this letter. British Embassies abroad will provide this service for a fee. US embassies I believe do not make a charge and include a paragraph to the effect that they consider such letters are unnecessary.

Medical Documents - these are not usually needed to get a visa but there is the possibility you may be asked for an HIV Certificate. For example, the Russian Federation may ask for one with a Russian translation if you are going to visit the country continuously for more than 3 months.

If you go for an HIV test in the UK you should bear in mind that even with a clear result, the test will be recorded on a database and could affect any application for life insurance or employment.

Seeking an HIV test in a foreign country brings the risk from dirty needles, inaccurate results an so on.

Personal Interview - a few countries will ask you to attend an interview. This may be as simple as just presenting yourself at the reception window to hand in your application form or it might be tea with the Consul or it might be more of an interrogation. You never know.

Translations - a few countries such as Libya refuse to accept any documents which are not in a specific language. Accordingly these need to be translated. In the case of Libya this is Arabic and only officially approved translators are permitted. The passport translation needs to be stamped by the UK passport office.

Obtaining your Visas - Abroad

Ideally you will have found out the Embassy or Consulate opening hours. For small embassies these may be very limited - perhaps only 2 days a week for 2 hours a day. Hopefully your visa for the country you are visiting won't expire before you get the next one.

Getting to the Consulate and handing in your application may well be a bit of an adventure. Embassies are sometimes grouped together in an enclave with strict security. Once in the enclave you then have to face the Embassy's own security procedures.

There will possibly be a queuing system to enter the Embassy compound run by the local police. The rules for this might be obscure. In Islamabad the guards at one Embassy herded everyone to the opposite side of the road and collected names as people arrived. Once the official opening hours approached the names were called (mostly unintelligibly) and you could join a queue constrained by metal railings. However some of our party were women and the guards told us to wait in a different place. We wondered what was going on. When the doors opened amazingly we were allowed in first in front of an enormous queue! Apparently "families" have priority! Once inside the embassy we were frisked and then queued again to present our applications The documents you need to present will be much the same as in the UK.

Obtaining your Visas - Collection

You usually have the choice whether your passport is sent to you by post or you collect it from the Embassy or Consulate. Normally the passport will be sent by first class post but you sometimes will have the option to have it returned by recorded delivery or special delivery at extra cost - an option that is worth using. Often you will have to provide the prepaid envelopes yourself.

Better still is to collect it in person. The reason for this is that you need to check the visa very carefully once you receive it and before you leave the premises. Compare the visas of all the members of your party, particularly the relevant dates. One error I came across was the year part of the issue date on a Kyrghyz visa had been omitted. The result was a lengthy argument on the border with the threat of being turned back although fortunately we were eventually allowed to enter. If you find an error get it corrected immediately.

Once you have your visas, photocopy them and ideally photo them with a digital camera.

The Visa Regime

Your visa comes with a whole set of regulations attached to it. Many of these are not told to you when you get your visa but may have been (but not necessarily) somewhere on the application form. In any event you are expected to know what they are. Information may be on the Embassy web site, supplied by a travel agent or in guide books.

Dates - The most obvious regulation is that you are only permitted to visit the country between the specified dates or for the specified period. By the time the visa expires you must have left the country. The penalties for overstaying your visa can be extreme. In China for example you can be fined $500 a day. You can be arrested and deported or detained for an extended period of time. If you have a problem you must go to the immigration authorities who will normally but not always issue you with an extension to the visa. Extension visas are often for only a short period.

Registration - Another common requirement is to register with the police or immigration authorities when you arrive, when you go to another city, at regular intervals and so on. When driving a vehicle, registration is sometimes carried out at police check points. You may have to search out an obscure office in the place you are visiting or you may be lucky and find a hotel to do the job for you although you may have to take a room for the night. There are usually fees for registration. There can also be fines for not registering. In Uzbekistan these can range from $1000 - $12000!!

I once obtained a visa for Pakistan while in Nepal and the Consulate over stamped the visas with the words "exempt from registration". This had no effect on the police despite protestations that we did not need to register. In the end we did register as it took less time. The problem was that the stamp was in English and the police could not read it!

Guides - Another and somewhat onerous requirement is to have a guide with you. This can be expensive particularly if they use their own transport. Iran, Libya, Algeria and China are examples. Having to have a guide is often is associated with having a preapproved route. In China we once deviated from the route and left the guide to help sort out a vehicle problem for one of our group. Unfortunately there was heavy rain and a landslide so we could not return for 3 days. The result of this was the threat of deportation and confiscation of our vehicles if it happened again.

Other Requirements - There are other requirements you may discover such as having to complete a migration card (as in Russia) every time you enter the country (even if you have a multi entry visa).


Visa rules are always changing so check for the latest information but don't be put off by the complications. Treat them as a challenge and part of the interest of the journey. There are very few countries you cannot take a vehicle to with a bit of determination and careful research.

© Clive Barker 2011.

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