The information in this post focuses only on short stints of travel for pleasure, and does not address the American who needs a work or student visa, or wants to stay long-term in another country.
While Americans always need a passport* to travel to other nations and be readmitted into the United states’ borders, the short answer to also needing a visa is “it all depends”.
Being an American with a passport means that you almost have carte blanche to travel anywhere in the world — the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, and on and on. However, you need to spend a little time researching if you also need a visa to enter specific countries.
Generally speaking, Americans wishing to travel to countries in the Caribbean have to do little more than show their passport. Americans vacation in the region so often that travel to this area is uncomplicated. The only exception is Cuba, which Americans will soon be able to travel to without having to offer a diplomatically approved reason to visit.
Another effortless place to visit is Europe. In most European countries, while you will still need to show your passport upon landing at any country’s airport, you will generally have the freedom to move from European country to European country without having to show a passport again. You will also not have to get a visa. This is because most countries in Europe are part of the Schengen Area.
Generally speaking, Americans wishing to travel to countries in the Caribbean have to do little more than show their passport.
Twenty-two out of twenty-eight members of the European Union (EU) are a part of the Schengen Area. The United Kingdom and Ireland have purposely opted out of being a part of the Schengen Area which means an American has to show a passport upon arriving from the United States, traveling between the U.K. and Ireland, or anywhere else in Europe and the U.K. or Ireland.
The other four EU member nations that aren’t part of the Schengen Area — Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania — have been purposely excluded although they would like to be members of the Schengen Area. What is the relevance? Americans need to show only their passport to get to or from those countries and other European nations, or upon flying into one of those countries’ borders. Those countries do not now require a visa.
Another effortless place to visit is Europe.
Surprisingly, many other countries require that Americans get a visa before arriving. Americans traveling to many parts of South America, Africa, and Asia will need to apply for a visa before they leave the United States at the destination country’s American embassy or consulate office. Each country sets its own fees for visa applications.
What, exactly, is a visa? A visa is an endorsement kept in your passport that shows you have the requisite permission to travel to, or through, the country for which it is required. It may be embossed onto one of the pages of your passport by the State Department after the visa has been issued. It may be a separate piece of paper that you must keep with your passport. Or, it may be digital.
The visa application process varies from country to country. It may be as simple as applying online and paying a fee (as for Argentina), or may require a rigorous application process that can take weeks and still limit holders to just a few days in that country (as in Russia), or require a rigorous process that ends with the applicant picking up the visa upon landing at the airport (as in Belarus).
For most visa-requirement countries, American applicants receive a physical visa to add to their passport. Australia is one of a growing list of nations that let applicants apply online, simply store the data digitally, and not issue a physical visa. The digital visa is linked to the applicant’s American passport and available to border agents upon the American’s arrival in Australia.
Whatever type of visa is required for your trip, apply for it directly from the government of the country you want to visit. And apply for it early!
Although this post doesn’t focus on the different types of visas available, it’s important to note that some countries will not even allow a traveler to pass into and out of their borders (even for a short time) without requiring that the traveler get a transit visa in advance.
A transit visa is for those who are traveling in immediate and continuous transit through that country en route to another country. For example, an American landing in Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow simply to change planes and head to a destination outside of Russia will still be required to get a transit visa.
A visa is an endorsement kept in your passport that shows you have the requisite permission to travel to, or through, a country for which it is required.
Another scenario in which might be required are on international cruises.
If you’re an American lucky enough to be sailing the seven seas on a luxury cruise, be very mindful of whether any of the destination countries require a visa to enter. Whether you are traveling from the shores of America or a Schengen Area nation to other countries, you may need a visa for some or all the countries you are visiting. A friend traveling from the U.S. on a forty-plus day cruise learned that she had to apply for a visa to get off the ship and enter both Brazil and Argentina. Luckily, the cruise line warned its passengers in advance and she was able to leave with passport and visas in hand.
It is important that you check each country’s visa requirements before leaving on your trip. Nothing would be so devastating as using binoculars on the deck of the cruise ship to enviously watch everyone else tango in Bueno Aires while you were stuck on the boat with nothing to do except play bingo.
Some of the most popular destination countries that require a visa from Americans are Australia, China, Brazil, Ghana, and India.
The list of countries requiring American citizens to get a visa to enter their borders could change, depending on the ever evolving world of country-to-country relations. The best advice is to always consult the consulate or embassy website of the countr(ies) that you wish to visit before making travel plans. You can also check the U.S. State Department’s website for helpful information at www.travel.state.us. Or, consult a good travel agent who will be able to guide you through the process.
Don’t let the possibility of going through the visa process deter you from going to that dream destination. With a little research, you may find you don’t need a visa. And if you do need a visa, the trip is probably worth it.
*See my other blog post Passport Card vs. Passport Book? What’s the Difference and Which One Should I Get? to learn why you need a passport book, and not a passport card, for the freest form of international travel.