When we first decided to drive from Germany to China, we knew what the biggest pain in the ass was going to be. Even on a good day, the visa application process is a miserable adventure through the bowels of bureaucracy, and in our case we needed to line up a series of visas to countries that didn’t seem to want us inside their borders.
There were two options available. Option one: We could hand over our passports to an agency that specialises in obtaining visas for overland trips. The extra fees were too much for us, however, and obtaining all the visas before the trip would mean that we’d have to decide on a route and a schedule far in advanced, and stick to it. Where’s the fun in that?
The second option would be to get the visas by ourselves while we travelled. This would be more of a headache, and we would run a higher risk of being denied, but it would also be cheaper and we could figure out when and where we wanted to go along the way.
In the end we scored visas for Armenia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China and Myanmar while travelling. It was surprisingly painless, and the occasional challenge turned out to be an adventure in itself.
With a little forward planning, you too can secure your own visas without having to fork out for expensive agencies and lock yourself into a set itinerary. Here are our tips for applying for—and getting—visas while on the road.
Before you go
1. Do your research
And do a lot of it. Figure out what countries require visas in advanced, which ones accept e-visas, and which ones have visa on arrival. How long are the visas valid for? Do you need to specify exact dates, or are they valid for a period? Do any of them require travellers to apply from their home country, or a country where they have a valid residence permit? If so, get these visas before you leave, or risk having to send your passport back home at what will probably be a very inconvenient time in your trip.
2. Plan your route, and your downtime
With information gathered from ample research in hand, it’s time to plan your visa strategy. In which cities will you apply for which visas? Every consulate has its own policies about who they give visas to, the documents they require, and the type of visas they give. The Chinese (or wherever you want to go) embassy in one country may be exceptionally strict, while the Chinese embassy in a neighbouring country may hand out 30-day visas to any nationality without even needing an itinerary. There’s loads of personal stories and embassy reports online that will give you a good idea of where these “sweet spots” lie; for our Eurasian road trip, the forums on Caravanistan were absolutely invaluable, but Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree also had some good information.
Another thing to consider are magical destinations where the bureaucracy is notoriously lax, and all the embassies tend to dole out visas without asking many questions. On our Eurasian route, Trabzon in Turkey, Tehran, and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan were renown as “visa heavens”, and we’ve heard the same about Singapore and Dubai. Plan to invest some downtime in these destinations and apply for as many visas as possible.
As a general rule: Plan to get visas as far in advanced as possible. If you’re denied at one embassy, you’ll have more chances to try again in a different city further into your trip.
3. Don’t believe the hype
Embassies are constantly changing their policies about which nationalities they’ll process where, and what documents are required. But it doesn’t happen all at once; it takes a while for policies to trickle down from the central government to each embassy, and the smaller the country or embassy, the slower this process is. If you’re hearing about some general change in policy but have yet to see the wave of enactment hit your part of the globe, give it a go anyway.
For example, when we applied for our Uzbekistan visas in September 2014, we read online and were told by visa agents that Americans needed a letter of invitation if they applied outside of the USA. Embassy reports in several European countries backed this information up, but we tried our luck at the Uzbek embassy in Ankara, Turkey, and were rewarded with visas in less than a week.
4. Know when it’s better to use an agency
Sometimes it is just better to use an agency. Some agencies have cultivated especially good relationships with consulate employees, and can get visas faster, cheaper, or with better validity than you could independently. The application may require you to show proof of onward travel, which can easily be booked and then later canceled by an agent. The embassy might be an absolute madhouse every day of the week (*cough*China*couch*) and getting to the front of the queue involves a 6am wakeup and a brawl at the front gate. Some embassies flat-out won’t accept tourist visa applications from a private party. Identify these situations and find an agency that will give you the best bang for your buck.
At the embassy
1. Find out which days and times the consular section is open
While the embassy might be open every business day, many times the consular section is only open during certain days of the week, and often only in the morning. Another quirk is that some consulates have scheduled times for visa submission or visa pick-up. Confirm these online, over the phone or in person. If their schedule doesn’t match yours, just ask nicely if you can submit or pick up your documents at another time. You’d be surprised how often they’re more than happy to accommodate requests.
2. Get there early
This is a given. Embassies are busy places and navigating all the forms and windows takes time. Get there as early as you have to in order to be at the front of the queue, or risk losing the majority of your day to bureaucracy. In some cases, if you arrive early enough you may get lucky with same-day processing and have your visa by the late afternoon.
3. Smile, be polite, and be persistent
Always be as polite as humanly possible to everyone who works at the embassy, from the security guard to the person at the cashier desk. But being polite doesn’t mean being a push-over. Very seldomly, a consular officer may give you trouble because they’re poorly informed about recent changes to things like visa fees and procedures for certain nationalities (yes, believe it or not, this happens!). Come armed with printed documentation from the embassy’s website, and demand they confirm the information with someone back at HQ if they give you problems.
A lot of non-Western embassies are pretty chaotic. If the locals are pushy, push along with them or you’ll be waiting all day until someone takes pity on you.
4. Keep your documents immaculately organised
Imagine it’s your job to sit in a small, crowded office beneath oppressive fluorescent lights and deal with mounds of paperwork every day. Anyone who willingly leaps into a position like that is probably massively anal. People like that thrive on organisation. Get on their good side by playing along; have all the requested documents prepared—the more, the better.
Put all forms and photocopies face-up, and staple related documents together. Staple, clip or paste your photo to the application, even if it’s not the correct size. Put everything together in the order listed on the embassy’s web page. Now slide that bundle of papers into the photo page of your passport. If the visa requires payment up-front, use crisp, clean bills, and put the money behind the application page. Then hand it all over and watch the immigration officer be secretly delighted.
5. Always keep a photocopy of your passport picture page and the visa stamp page
Important!! If the embassy is going to keep your passport, don’t forget to keep a copy of your passport photo page and visa stamp page. In countries where it’s mandatory to carry your passport, ask the embassy to write a note on the back and give it their chop. In many countries it’s mandatory for foreigners to carry their passport and visa with them at all times, and if you get caught out you may get stuck with an inconvenient “fee”, or worse.
Tenacity, charm and a little luck
The thing to realise is that, in many cases, the gloomy-looking worker bees behind that counter are the ones in control of your fate—not the central government. You need to present them with a strong case for a visa in an organised way (to make their life easier), with a smile or a little extra cash to lubricate the process. As with most of life, a smidgen of luck doesn’t hurt either.
Applying for your own visas on the road isn’t as difficult as it sounds, nor is the process as black-and-white as it seems from the outside (We even managed to score a Turkmenistan visa in my American passport while in Iran—despite the fact that Americans aren’t technically even allowed in Iran independently). Going through the visa process is a great primer for understanding the flexible way things do (or don’t) work in the rest of the world. And, in our opinion, a little bureaucratic tango at the edge of the earth definitely sets apart the travellers from the tourists.