“Remember that part in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy arrives in Emerald City?
She knocks on the door, giddy with excitement, and asks to be let inside.
Remember what the moustached guard says? ‘Ain’t no way, ain’t no how!’
Applying for visas is kind of like that.” – Mike On A Bike
Visas are a necessary evil. You can’t go too far from home without needing at least a few of these official documents in your passport, but getting visas can be stupidly complicated.
In general, the only rule about applying for visas is that there are no rules. How easy or hard it is to get your visa depends on:
- Your nationality
- The political situation at the time
- Whether you want to pay for a rush service (if there is one)
- The general whims of the officials working behind the counter
Sometimes it’s an easy, straight-forward procedure that is completed within a day or even at the airport.
Other times you have to elbow your way through a queue, make repeated runs to the bank and pretend not to be annoyed when the bureaucrat in charge tells you he’s not opening the office today, because there was a big party the night before and he’d rather sleep (yes, this happened to us). Usually you can apply for them on the road but occasionally you have to apply from your home country.
A further complication is that the rules are always changing, and usually visas need to be used a few weeks or months after they’re issued.
That means you can’t apply for them too far in advance and there’s no point in obsessing about where you’ll get every last visa before you leave on an extended trip. What is possible when you set out from home may be impossible by the time you get closer. Sometimes wars and diplomatic squabbles will spoil your party. Other times you’ll find old enemies making peace with one another, paving the way for a route you never considered before.
Just a few passport photos from a world bike trip.
What can you do to prepare? Getting a broad idea of the situation is always good.
- Look up the official websites of the countries you want to visit and read current regulations.
- Figure out if you can apply from somewhere en route, or if you’ll have to mail your passport home for processing.
- See if there are agencies who will help with the procedure (this sometimes makes things faster and is a necessity for countries like Iran).
- Research the best places to log your application. Some embassies are friendlier or more efficient than others. Updates are often reported on travel chat forums, such as Lonely Planet’s Thorntree boards.
- Make sure you have all the required papers and passport photos ready or know how to get them: photocopies of bank statements, passport photocopies, a letter from your own embassy (you may have to pay), a Letter of Invitation (official letters often issued by tour companies for a fee) are all commonly requested for visas.
About 3-4 months before you’re ready to enter a country, start making real efforts to apply for your visa. Be realistic about how long this might take. Blocking off a few days or even weeks to pick up visas on an extended bike tour is not uncommon.
In addition to supplying all the things above, you may also be asked where you are staying in the country (pick the name of any hotel, it doesn’t matter, you just need to fill out the form) or for proof of onward travel. Mostly, if you explain you are cycling, the onward travel requirement fails to become an issue but some people do purchase a cheap, refundable plane ticket to satisfy the bureaucratic machine.
On the topic of onward travel, cyclist Doug Nienhuis says: “An easy fix is to book a flight online and print out an itinerary. You can do this without actually paying for the flight. Anyone looking closely can see that this itinerary is not a paid-for flight. However, it generally doesn’t matter. The important thing is to supply a document that can be attached to your application.”
Also, don’t forget to set aside extra cash for visas. Mostly the fees and associated costs are nominal but occasionally they can reach $100 U.S. or more per visa, not to mention the extra costs of hanging around a city for a few days while you wait for the visa to be processed.
Finally, have a Plan B. Sometimes, for whatever reason, that visa just doesn’t come through. Then it’s time to try something else. There are plenty of places in the world, so go explore one that’s easy to get in to!