Few things can dampen the joy of vacation anticipation more than the arduous process of obtaining a visa, especially for destinations such as Brazil, Russia, China and India. Wonky Web forms, confounding instructions, long lines at embassies and ever-changing requirements — like Venezuela’s new immigration rules, which now require Americans to procure visas — are par for the course.
How to mitigate frustration? Outsource the bureaucratic snarl to visa services companies and travel agents. Here’s a three-step plan for success.
▪ Learn the rules. Your first stop should be the State Department website, where you can look up your desired destination and find out if you even need a visa. Here you’ll also discover other essential information, like how many blank pages must be in your passport (ignore this at your peril; failure to comply may get you sent home) and how long your passport is considered valid. You can learn more at http://travel.state.gov.
Be aware that if someone in your party has a passport from a country other than the United States, that person is likely to have different requirements.
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▪ Mind the season. Filing paperwork about two months in advance is ideal for any visa in high season, said Ginny Caragol, the director of leisure business development for Valerie Wilson Travel in New York.
When you apply for a tourist visa affects how long it takes to be approved (although some countries have restrictions as to how far in advance you can apply). Russia’s high season, for instance, is June through August, so you will wait longer and pay more if you do not apply a couple of months in advance, Caragol said.
Or say you want to go to Brazil. Now is a good time to apply for that visa, she said, because you are likely to receive it in two or three weeks. Trying to get a visa for Brazil in January or February as its carnival approaches, on the other hand, is an exercise in futility. “Brazil will sometimes say it takes two months to get a visa,” she said. And at that point, she continued solemnly, “there is nothing you can do.” Well, almost nothing. Some, shall we say, creative travelers have attempted to circumvent long waiting times by flying to Argentina and then applying at the embassy there for a visa, she said. But such stunts don’t come with guarantees.
▪ Hire help. You can miss a day’s work waiting in the interminable line outside the Chinese consulate, only to be told you have to go home and do it all again because you filled out the form incorrectly. But for a few hundred dollars, you can hire a visa services company to make sure your paperwork is in order and do the legwork for you.
For busy people, these companies are a blessing, especially if you’ve waited until the last minute to apply for a visa. In general, visa services companies can help you complete the necessary forms, tell you if you need a money order and send or take your passport to an embassy.
While a number of reputable visa services, like those from Ultramar Travel Management, are primarily used by business travelers, there are plenty of options for leisure travelers.
Caragol and her leisure travel colleagues work closely with two leading visa services companies, CIBTvisas and Passport Rush. Like several tour operators, they also use VisaCentral, part of CIBT.
The cost of visa services companies varies greatly depending on a number of factors, particularly shipping and how quickly you need the visa. Caragol said the services fees start around $85. At CIBTvisas and VisaCentral, the full cost also typically includes base fees, government agency and consular fees, delivery charges and foreign national surcharges.
CIBTvisas and VisaCentral have lists of their fees at Cibtvisas.com/service-fees and Visacentral.com/service-fees. Passport Rush lists its fees at Passportrush.com/Visas2.htm under each country. Allied Passport & Visa has rates at Alliedpassport.com/rates.php.
To check on a service you have heard about or have seen on Yelp or elsewhere online, just Google the business name and the word “reviews.” That can turn up comments from multiple sites, allowing you to read what’s being said on TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic and the Better Business Bureau.