July 16, 2010

The Visa Series Part I: Tourist Visas

Earlier this summer, we talked a bit about the logistics of working abroad – essentially the nuts and bolts of finding (and keeping) a job abroad.

This stuff (like airline tickets and insurance) isn’t exactly riveting, it is essential. The last thing that you want in a foreign country is to have to spend your time filling out paperwork and visiting the embassy for things that you could have dealt with before you left.

As someone who worked extensively with ex-pats in the developing world, one of the most popular (and complicated) questions I would get is: Do I really need a visa to work abroad? There is no simple answer to this, so today’s post will focus on all things visa-related, and hopefully shed some light on this confusing issue.

What is a visa?

A visa is issued to foreigners when they enter a country – there are all types of visas. Visas are associated with your passport, and control what kind of activities you are allowed to participate in in your host country.

I. The Tourist Visa

What is a tourist visa?

A tourist visa is pretty much what it sounds like – it is a visa that allows you to remain in a foreign country for a certain period of time (90 days is a good baseline) for purely recreational/tourist purposes. You can travel domestically on a tourist visa, and it is generally renewed when you cross borders. For example, a Chilean 90 day tourist visa will be renewed for an additional 90 days when you cross the border to Argentina and re-enter Chile. That means a total of 180 days on a tourist visa, if you leave and come back (even if only for an hour). Of course (as I’ll say again and again) every country does things a little differently. Most countries automatically issue a tourist visa when you enter the country; some require a fee (e.g. reciprocity). Some countries (this is more common in African countries) require that you obtain (and pay for) a tourist visa in advance. Most countries, if not all, will require that you already have a return ticket.

It is important to mention that it is not a great idea to stay in a country on an expired visa – it make seem like the easiest way to extend your stay, but there are consequences to living abroad “undocumented” which includes at least a fine, and possibly some time in jail! Be aware that as a non-citizen, a foreign government has every right to ask you for your documentation.

If you let a tourist visa expire, it will also limit your ability to travel if you choose to do so. If you reach a border on an expired visa, you might be asked to leave the country and go home immediately and may not be able to return. Ever.

What all tourist visas have in common is that you cannot officially work (and earn income) on a tourist visa. Volunteer work (or “off the books” work…which is an entirely different story) is generally okay. But in order to legally be paid for work in a foreign county, you will need more than a tourist visa in your passport.

So if you are taking a paid job overseas, you know that you have to take a few more steps in the visa process. Stay tuned for the next Visa Series post for more information about work visas!

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