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Long-Term Travel and Visas: How Does It Work?

Posted By in Travel Tips, Volunteer Abroad | 16 comments

Long-Term Travel and Visas: How Does It Work?

A lot of my posts focus on ways to work and volunteer your way around the world, and therefore, I guess it’s not surprising that one of the most common email questions I receive is: “What do you do about visas for each country?” I haven’t really tackled the subject of visas before because, of course, it varies hugely depending on where you’re from and where you’re going, making it a challenging topic to sum up simply. To keep things basic, I’m going to share some stories about my experiences acquiring visas for different countries, as well as some general takeaway lessons that should help get you started navigating the world of visa rules.

how to apply for tourist visas

Tourist Visas

Brent and I have done about half of our traveling on tourist visas. We use tourist visas when we’re straight-up traveling (obviously), as well as when we’re volunteering.

My experience is that volunteering is kind of a grey area in terms of visas for many countries. Most of our work exchange hosts advised Brent and I not to mention our volunteer arrangement when asked at immigration about our travel plans. This isn’t because we were technically doing anything illegal, but because it might sound like we were. Staying with a local family and doing free labour? To an immigration official, it might come across as the kind of arrangement where we could easily be receiving payment under the table. Ultimately, Brent and I were always comfortable not mentioning our volunteer plans, and stating our purpose of travel as “tourism” because it was an honest answer – any volunteering we did was just a means to an end, and we weren’t making any money from it.

In terms of acquiring tourist visas, I’m pretty lucky as a Canadian because I can show up in most countries and be granted a tourist visa on arrival, no pre-arrangements necessary. For Canadians, tourist visas typically range from 30-90 days.

As I explained in this early post, it’s still important to understand exactly what your tourist visa covers because in Europe, for example, a huge collection of countries are part of the Schengen, and share a common visa. This meant that even as we traveled from Italy, to Germany, to Holland, we were still working with the same 90 days we were given when we first entered Italy, and not being issued new visas for each country. Brent and I were fortunate to realize this rule before heading to Europe, because I’ve heard stories of other long-term travelers being caught off guard by the Schengen rules. They wrongly assume that they get a new tourist visa and a new 90 days for each European country. It’s not quite as dramatic as the Schengen rules, but in some countries, like Laos, tourists are required to pay a small fee for their visa, which can be good to know in advance.

how to apply for tourist visas

My double-entry Thai tourist visa

There are other countries, like China, for example, where you need to apply in advance for any kind of visa, including tourist visas. Lucky, again, this hasn’t happened to Brent and I, but I’ve heard stories of Canadians and Americans showing up in China, assuming they’ll be given a visa on arrival as they are when they arrive in most other countries. In other cases, applying for a tourist visa in advance is not required, but it can get you a longer stay. In Thailand, for example, Canadians who just show up are given a 30-day tourist visa on arrival. However, by applying for our tourist visas in advance, Brent and I were able to apply for “double-entry” tourist visas, stretching out our stay to 6 months.

It’s also worth noting (because it’s something I didn’t understand, at first) where you can apply for visas. If you want to apply for a Thai visa (any kind of visa), for example, you can apply for it at a Thai embassy in any country – it doesn’t necessary have to be the embassy in your home country.

The Takeaway:

  • Tourist visas are generally ok to use for general tourism and volunteering.
  • You might think you don’t need to do any research before acquiring a tourist visa, but it’s a good idea to double check for any associated fees, unusual rules, or unexpected countries that require advanced application. I use the Government of Canada’s Travel Advice page, which breaks it down pretty clearly for Canadians, plus covers a lot of other information you should read before planning a trip somewhere.
  • In some countries, advanced tourist visa applications are not required, but can extend the length of your visa.

Work Visas

how to apply for work visas when you're traveling

My Japanese work visa

You might think that getting a work visa would be more complicated than getting a tourist visa, but in fact, I’ve had the opposite experience. When I apply for a tourist visa, I’m on my own, but when I apply for a work visa, my new employer helps with the process. Brent and I have secured work visas two different ways:

  1. When we taught English in Thailand, we entered the country with tourist visas on arrival, and then our company subsequently helped us apply for work visas. They gave us some paperwork, we hopped on a bus to the closest Thai embassy in Laos, received our work visas, and then re-entered Thailand on our new work visas. This is pretty much how the process would work if you want to job hunt in a foreign country in person. You come in on a tourist visa, look for a job, and then, once you’re hired, your new company helps you switch to a work visa.
  2. When we were still living in Thailand, we were hired for new jobs in Japan. In this case, the Japanese company mailed us the appropriate documents and we took them to a Japanese embassy in Thailand, where we were issued Japanese work visas. This way, we were able to enter Japan with work visas, rather than initially entering on tourist visas as we did previously in Thailand. This is basically the process you would go through if you were to be hired for a job overseas while still in your home country. With the help of your employer, you’d apply for a work visa at the appropriate embassy in your home country, and then enter the new country with a work visa in place.

The Takeaway:

  • If you get a job, your new employer should help you arrange your work visa, so you don’t really need to worry too much about the details.


Share your visa experiences in the comments! Anything to add? 



  1. Dale July 4, 2014

    Visas – I hate them, hate them, hate them; and I generally don't have such a hard time with them because I have a British passport. I feel sorry for people who have really long and complicated visa processes to go through.

    I agree with you though, that it's really important that we don't take our tourist or business visa for granted and that we research it to the full before we acquire one, sometimes because of the hidden fees, but often because of some limitations like not being able to extend them.
    My recent post Why ‘Couchsurfing is free’ Is A Myth

    • waysofwanderers July 7, 2014

      I think a British passport has to be one of the best. My mom is British, but I've always used a Canadian passport; however, after seeing the freedom Brits have to travel through Europe without the limit of the 90-days I get with my Canadian passport, I'm definitely applying for my British passport! I agree, though – Canadians, Americans, Brits, Australians, we're all really lucky. Some people have to go through long application processes for even a 2-week vacation.

  2. Heather July 7, 2014

    Visas can be so tricky in some parts of the world. When we lived in Shanghai, I tried applying for a visa to Vietnam in person at their consulate, but was denied. That was very stressful considering we'd already booked our flights and hotels. But I was able to get a visa on arrival in HCMC through the company that did our Halong Bay cruise. It's definitely important to understand the rules for traveling to a country before you book anything!
    My recent post 7 Reasons You Should Visit Cleveland Right Now

    • waysofwanderers July 7, 2014

      Weird! Did you ever find out why? I'm always a little afraid of that happening because most embassies make it clear they won't return your application fee, even if your visa is denied. I'm glad it worked out ok for you at least.

  3. elenastravelgram July 8, 2014

    I'm a Ukrainian passport holder and I endlessly complain about visa restrictions and how many papers I need to fill in for getting Schenghen visa (or not) and my current chance of getting a UK/USA/CA visa are a tiny bit above zero 🙂 But it's all way simpler in South-East Asia and couldn't agree more on work visas.

    P.S. In case I overstay my visa for at least a day, I'd get a 5 year ban on entering any Schenghen country as I would probably be considered as a potential illegal immigrant, so the guys from your story are pretty lucky 🙂
    My recent post What it’s like to be a a traveler from a 2nd world country: Visas

    • waysofwanderers July 12, 2014

      I'm not sure if the exact punishment is different for each country, but I've also heard that the penalty for overstaying a Schengen visa can be quite harsh for any nationality.

  4. Laura July 9, 2014

    It's hard to sum up getting visas in one post isn't it? There are also Working Holiday visas in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK (youth mobility). All are ones you apply for outside the country and then enter giving you 1-2 years to work AND travel. I wish EVERY country had a working holiday visa!
    My recent post Funny Things Kids Say

    • waysofwanderers July 12, 2014

      Agreed! Working holiday visas are awesome. I haven't used one personally, but I've met a lot of travelers who have. It's a great way for anyone under 30 to work and travel.

  5. Wesley Travels July 18, 2014

    I have been traveling now for three years and I still hate visa's.. Just can't get used to it..

  6. Chun Leong January 27, 2015

    Totally pleased to get this content here which share some stories about your experiences acquiring visas for different countries, as well as some general takeaway lessons that should help get us started navigating the world of visa rules. Actually this terms and conditions of visa processing everyone should know and I am so benefited to get this info here. Thanks dude and inform like this.

  7. Tereza Lopes March 11, 2015

    Embassies were very friendly in nature. No need to scare about them.

  8. Natalie July 27, 2015

    It turns out that for volunteering, the UK and Australia have very specific rules. In Australia, you must have a work visa, because even volunteers are afforded certain workers rights. In the UK, you must volunteer with a registered charity if you volunteer(wwoof UK is registered and their website has the charity code listed) and you may only volunteer for 30 days on a regular tourist visa. This volunteering is listed as “incidental” so it should not be the focus of your visit. The UK immigration & visa site is very informative. Furthermore, some Schengen countries are more strict about volunteering as a tourist than others, Spain and France, as far as I’ve heard, are very strict, while Italy is lax. In Japan, it depends on which official you talk to, how they are feeling, and how you explain your situation. I was allowed in as a tourist because I stressed that I would not be paid and that it is more like a homestay. Sorry this is so long.

    • waysofwanderers July 27, 2015

      True. I guess it depends how transparent you want to be with immigration officials. If I'm doing some touring and some volunteering, I usually just say I'm coming for tourism because it makes the whole process simpler.

  9. shahyan September 6, 2015

    with respect to working visas, is it necessary to have a college degree or is this another one in grey which varies from country to country? As an Jessica you mentioned that you got one for Japan and i would think it was essential there?

    • waysofwanderers September 7, 2015

      Hi Shahyan – I'm honestly not sure because I have a college degree, so I've never looked into getting a work visa without one. I doubt it's necessary, though – you should just need to be hired by an employer that's willing to sponger your visa.

  10. artistsalleyvip May 20, 2016

    Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.

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