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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?