International travel isn’t always as easy as buying an airline ticket. Most countries have some requirements for lawful entry, even for short trips. If you have never traveled outside of the United States (or haven’t done so for a long time), you will need a passport, regardless of your destination. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll need your passport to re-enter the United States!
The Department of State currently recommends allowing at least 6 to 8 weeks for routine passport application processing, and at times, 12 or more weeks is needed. An expedited option is available which can allow you to get a passport in 2-3 weeks, however extra fees will apply. You must also apply for a passport in person. Designated post offices, county and municipal offices can accept passport applications, but you may need to make an appointment.
The State Department also offers a limited passport, called a passport card. A passport card is valid only for land-based and seaport entry into the United States. It is valid for travel only to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. If you intend to travel by air or outside of North America, you must apply for a standard US passport booklet. You do not have to choose between a passport card and a booklet. You can hold both.
For international travelers, getting a passport may be only half the battle! Many countries also require visas. While a passport is issued by your own country, a visa is issued by the country being visited. Some countries may not require a visa, or may accept a US passport in lieu of a visa for short visits. You might only need a visa for certain types of travel. Each country makes its own visa rules.
The State Department website can tell you whether you need a visa to travel to certain countries. Unfortunately, it can’t help you get one! You’ll need to apply directly to your intended destination(s), if a visa is required.
Generally, an embassy or consulate of the country you plan to travel to will process visa applications. You must have a valid US passport prior to applying for a travel visa. Some countries will not accept a valid US passport if it is within 6 months of expiring. Others will allow you to travel with a valid visa and an expired passport! Still others may require that you have a certain number of blank pages available in your passport booklet, for the visa itself and any stamps added when entering or leaving a country.
When applying for a visa, you may also need to supply travel documents, such as your valid passport, an itinerary, an “invitation” issued by your hotel, or other proof of travel. Visas may be valid for a single entry, or may be accepted for multiple entries within a certain time period.
You may apply for a visa directly to the country that will issue it, but you may want to consider getting a little “professional help” if you have never traveled internationally. Because each country makes its own rules about issuing visas, some travelers opt to use travel agencies and visa expediting services to ensure that their visa applications contain all required documentation. Expediting services can also ensure that your travel papers arrive at the correct office, include the correct fees and that you have purchased any required insurance for your travels. Having a valid visa in place before you leave is essential, since you may be denied admission to your destination without one!
So where can you go to find out what you need to do to become a world traveler? One of the best resources for US travelers is the US Department of State. A quick visit to the website can tell you whether your intended destination requires a passport, a travel visa or vaccinations. It also reports entry and exit restrictions, health care options, active travel warnings and the location of the closest US embassies.
If you plan to travel outside of the United States, you can also register your travel with The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that allows the State Department to notify the closest US Embassy of your travel plans. With your contact information, US embassies can more quickly contact you to provide safety and travel warnings as well as assistance during an emergency (natural disaster, civil unrest, etc.). They can also provide emergency contact assistance to employers and family
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