(Editor’s Note: This story is geared towards U.S. citizens traveling internationally. Citizens of other countries may encounter some of the same issues when traveling internationally.)
Picture international travel and you might visualize new cultures, unfamiliar languages, and exotic foods. Less fun to imagine is finding out only too late that you were supposed to get a travel visa before leaving on your trip, or nearly missing your plane when you had to scramble to find the cash needed to pay the airport departure tax on your way home.
To spare yourself the frustrations, dashed hopes, and lost money associated with international travel hassles, it’s important to prepare in advance. Here are some of the biggest issues to watch out for, and ways to make sure they’re only minor bumps in the road rather than roadblocks to travel.
Visas You Need Before Traveling
Though many countries either don’t require visas for vacations or allow visitors to obtain a visa upon arriving, some destinations require travelers to apply for a visa before embarking on their trip.
For instance, anyone traveling to China must have a visa obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure. For questions about the application process, the Chinese embassy has a telephone consulting service.
For travel to Russia, visitors will need to apply for a visa in person at a consulate, through a visa agency, or, depending on the consulate, by mail. Check with the consulate for your state to find out how to apply. Visitors must provide a completed application, a passport with at least two free pages, a tourist confirmation letter from a hotel or Russian travel agency, a voucher from the hotel or travel agency, a personal cover letter, and a photo.
Travelers headed to Australia, India, and other countries will also need to get a visa before traveling. The best way to avoid any confusion is to check the U.S. State Department country entry/exit information or Project Visa for your destination at the same time you book your tickets. That should give you enough time to take whatever steps are necessary.
Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
Remember when you could return from Canada by car or island hop on a Caribbean cruise with nothing more than a driver’s license? Those days are gone, so if you’re planning a trip to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, or Mexico, you’ll need to have a passport or another form of enhanced identification.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which has been phasing in over the last several years, requires all travelers reentering the U.S. by air to have a traditional passport book. However, travelers coming by land or sea have more options. A passport card, good for car or boat travel to WHTI countries, costs less than a passport book and is wallet-sized. Four states (Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Washington) offer enhanced state driver’s licenses for $15 to $30 more than the cost of a regular license. Other documentation types that will allow you to get back into the U.S. after your trip include Trusted Traveler Cards, military identification cards with travel orders, and certain Native American and Tribal identity cards.
Arrival or Departure Taxes
Knowing ahead of time you’re going to need to have money on hand to fork over as you enter or leave a country is important, especially if you’ve got a plane to catch. Arrival and departure taxes vary wildly between countries, so there’s no rule of thumb to fall back on. Sometimes you’ll cover these taxes in advance as part of the cost of your airline ticket; other times you’ll need to pay as you get your passport stamped on your way in; and often, you’ll be hit up for the fee on your way out of the country. It’s also worth noting that sometimes the arrival fee you pay upon arrival is, in part, a charge for the visa you’ll need to enter the country.
For example, in Chile, you’ll need to have $131 dollars or a credit card on hand when you arrive at customs. In Belize, departure fees total about $40, payable in U.S. or Belize dollars, but are sometimes included in airfare. In Cambodia, you’ll pay a $25 departure tax.
Whether you pay in local currency, U.S. dollars, or with a credit card varies by destination. With such a muddle, what’s an international traveler to do? Find out in advance by doing an online search or checking the State Department website. And if you need cash, put the right amount of the correct currency aside so you’ll be prepared.
Passports Close to Expiration
Some countries require your passport to be valid for three to six months after your travel dates. For instance, I learned the hard way that Italy requires passports to be valid for at least three months after a visitor’s travel dates. And beware, though it’s not always enforced, this restriction is more common than you might suspect.
The best way to avoid this issue is to renew your passport about nine months before it expires. That will give you time to get a new one before entering that pesky three- to six-month window. To find out whether the countries you’re visiting have restrictions on soon-to-expire passports, check the State Department “Country Specific Information” page.
Passport Stamp Issues
Occasionally, travelers run into problems when they’ve had their passports stamped by one country and want to enter another that has problematic relations with the first. The most cited example of this these days is that a passport stamp in Israel may result in a refusal of entry to certain other countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Ways around it include asking the customs officer not to stamp your passport, to stamp a separate piece of paper that you can remove from your passport, or to avoid traveling between countries with such issues.
Have you ever been caught up in an international travel hassle? Share your stories and tips in the comments section below!