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
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.
Despite so many visa free countries, many still requiring visas
always seem to be along the route of our overland journeys!
These may vary from country to country - after all they decide the
rules. You may come across the following
and even a
Note all entries must fall within the specified
Period of Visa
Specified period of
Specified period of weeks
Specified period of months
period of years
Period of validity from date of issue during which
the visa may commence
Specified period of days
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.