Getting the right documentation for your travel
Planning to travel abroad takes considerable time and resources. Knowing which forms to complete, where to send them and how to use them can make or break your trip. Visas and passports are ubiquitous travel documents that serve similar purposes but have very different functions. Understanding the difference between the two is vital to determining whether you're eligible to enter a particular foreign country.
Visas vs. Passports
A passport is an internationally recognized travel document that confirms your citizenship and identity to other nations. Consider it like a ticket to an amusement park. A visa, on the other hand, is an endorsement on the passport that indicates you have permission to stay in the visiting country for a certain amount of time – consider it the seven-day pass to the amusement park. Both visas and passports contain basic information about you and help foreign nations determine if you're eligible to enter and stay in their country.
What's the purpose of a visa and passport?
Visas and passports allow you to enter a foreign country for a certain amount of time. Different countries have different requirements for U.S. travelers. If you were to visit India, for example, you'll need a valid passport and an Indian visa to enter. If you travel to the United Kingdom and stay less than 90 days, however, all you'll need is a valid U.S. passport. Be sure to check out country-specific travel information for international visa and passport requirements on the U.S. Department of State's website. When traveling to a foreign country that requires a visa, consider wait and processing times when making your travel plans.
How long does it take to get a visa and passport to travel?
Processing times for visas and passports vary depending on the country and whether you choose to use an expedited process, if available. Passports typically take six to eight weeks to arrive at your doorstep. Visas can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to process depending on your destination. Expedited passports take approximately two to three weeks to process.
Understanding U.S. visas
It's also helpful to understand the purpose and function of U.S. visas to have a better understanding of visas in general. Individuals from most foreign countries generally must first obtain a visa before they can enter the United States. However, having a U.S. visa does not guarantee entry; it only indicates that an embassy or consulate has determined that the individual is eligible to stay in the U.S. for a certain amount of time. Generally speaking, non-immigrant, or visitor, visas are for temporary stays, and immigrant visas are for permanent residence in the U.S. Visas for international destinations play a similar role in determining your eligibility and period of stay.
Since the paperwork and processing times for visas and passports can take some time, begin your application well in advance of any international travel. Also make sure your passport is still valid and you're aware of the passport and visa requirements of the country you're visiting.