Visas, Passports & Permits, Oh My!

If you’re going to travel outside the U.S. (or Canada), you’re going to need to take along some documentation when you go. At the minimum, you will likely need a passport (although sometimes a birth certificate and ID are sufficient). You may or may not need a visa (depending on where you’re going), and you will need a work permit if you intend on working in a
foreign country. Here are some of the basic to help you.

Passport Photo

What is a Passport?
A passport is a document you carry with you that registers you as a citizen of your country and helps your government keep track of you. Why is this important? Well, there are a couple of cases where this can be vital. For one, if there is an emergency at home (such as a death in the family), it makes it easier to track you down if you are traveling from country to country. For another, the government uses passports to keep track of where U.S. citizens are in case there is a crisis in a foreign country and American citizens need to be evacuated. Perhaps an even more important reason is that you’ll need a passport to enter the U.S. again after your travels. It’s much easier to prove you’re a U.S. citizen–and satisfy the immigration officers at the American border–if you have a valid passport!

What is a Visa?
A visa is similar to a passport, except that it is a document used by countries other than your own. A visa is the official “OK” from a foreign government that allows you to stay in another country, and it helps that country’s government keep track of who is entering their borders. Before you travel anywhere outside North America, make sure to check whether you need a visa. There are a variety of different visas you can obtain, including tourist visas, non-immigrant visas, student visas, diplomatic visas, business visas, science/research/technical visas, and work visas, all of which have varying limitations on how long you can stay in a country. You can check with the department of immigration or department of tourism of the country you intend to visit or check with an embassy or consulate. You can also contact visa and passport information services, which are listed in your local yellow pages under “Passports.”

What is a Work Permit?
A work permit is any document that grants foreigners the right to obtain employment in a particular country (usually for a specified, limited time.) Steps toward obtaining a work permit can vary from country to country, so your best bet is to check with an embassy or consulate for advice, or you can ask your new employer for help, too. One company that we have found particularly good at helping with work permits and visas is VisaNow.

Obtaining Your Documents

You can get a passport from any local State Department Passport Agency, post office, or courthouse. To obtain a passport, you’ll need to bring the following with you:

  • Proof of citizenship, such as a certified copy of a birth certificate or a certificate of naturalization or citizenship.
  • Two photos from your shoulder up, against a light background, 2″ x 2″; in size (look in the yellow pages under Passport Photos).
  • Identification (usually a driver’s license)
  • A $85 fee for people age 16 and over; $70 for children under 16.

To find the passport agency closest to your location, link to the US Department of State Passport Services site.

You should give yourself at least two months’ time to obtain a passport. If you need a passport within five to six weeks, you will be asked to pay an additional fee of $60. If you are in a real hurry, you can contact a passport expeditor. These companies are listed in the yellow pages under “Passports.”–they can usually get a passport within two days–for a fee. Here is one company you can contact:

A. Briggs Passport & Visa Expeditors
1054 31st Street, NW, Suite 270
Washington, DC 20007

You can also visit the Passport Express site at

Passports are valid for ten years for adults and five years for children. After you get your first passport, renewing after it expires is fairly simple. If it was issued after you were sixteen years old and within the last fifteen years, you can apply by mail. If not, however, you’re considered a first-timer and have to go through the original application process again. The renewal fee is $55 (check or money order), and you also need to mail the following:

  • A completed DSP-82 form
  • Two new photos
  • Your old passport

Send these materials to:

National Passport Center
P.O. Box 371971
Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7971

Tip: If you’re traveling to more than one country, carry ten or twelve extra passport photos with you. Guards at border crossings will often ask you to fill out a transit travel form and include a photograph of yourself.

Visa requirements change as often as political winds do. Up-to-date travel books for the areas you’re visiting typically list visa requirements. A good travel agent specializing in budget and off-the-beaten-path travel should know the specifics of the countries you’re planning to visit. You can call or write the embassy or consulate of the countries in question. Or you can ask Uncle Sam. Write for the booklet “Foreign Entry Requirements,” Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009. Enclose fifty cents for postage.

American nationals traveling abroad benefit from the world’s least restrictive visa entrance requirements. Most countries will grant you a thirty-day tourist visa upon entry into
their country. These can often be renewed for sixty days, ninety days, or longer. Getting a visa in the United States takes over a month. Fortunately, it’s possible to get a visa quicker–and often cheaper–in a foreign country as you travel. For example, a visa to enter Australia can be obtained in Fiji in two to four days at the Australian consulate for free. You can also obtain a visa in Malaysia to visit Thailand in less than a day. Keep these shortcut possibilities in mind when
you’re traveling in a hurry.

You can also use a visa expeditor to help you. Here are two companies that can help:

Washington Visa and Travel Document Center
2025 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20006

Center for International Business and Travel
2135 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 745-3815

If you are a non-US citizen looking to get a visa to work in the US, a company called Visa Now may be able to help you,

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