Stay Away From The Visa Cha-Cha
These days Vicki and I try to only do visa-free travel. That is, we only visit countries that allow us to enter without requiring we go through a cumbersome visa process.
Some countries still require that we show up at their consulate somewhere. Once there we have to fill out a form, present a picture, and sometimes show plane tickets, hotel reservations, bank statements, a detailed itinerary, and so on. Then we have to wait a few days, leaving our passports, and return to pick them up. We dislike it and rarely do it.
You may want to adopt the same policy.
A visa is a stamp in your passport that allows you to visit a given country. To clarify: I’m talking about tourist visas here, the visas that let you show up and stick around awhile. Different types of visas may authorize you to work or reside permanently in a country.If countries streamline their visa process, without a visit to a consulate, we go. We do visa on arrival in Cambodia and Laos, for example, where the government collects a few bucks at the border. We do online visas, a minor inconvenience if traveling to Australia. And we apply for long-term visas, for example, 10-year multiple-entry visas to China and India available to Americans. We like both of those countries, so we get the visas, and use them over and over.
We’ve found our visa-free policy works well. At times we’re prevented from seeing some countries we’d like to visit (more about those countries in a minute). Luckily, we find that more and more countries permit visa-free travel. Our visa-free policy leads to more relaxed travel for us. We avoid the hassle of visits to consulates abroad.
Take the former Soviet Union as a case in point. The Soviet Union consisted of 12 republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Turkmenia. In the years leading up to the Soviet collapse in 1991, tough visa requirements kept out nearly all casual visitors.
After the 1991 collapse, the 12 countries went their separate ways but tended to keep the restrictive visa policy. So you and I were unable to visit Georgia and Armenia, unable to visit Moldova and Ukraine. But over the years, the various republics dropped their visa requirements and started to welcome Western tourists.
So what happened? Tourism skyrocketed in every case, up 20% or more every year. A whole new economic sector—tourism—developed into a cash cow for local citizens and government. Turns out that those harsh visa requirements, those draconian measures to close borders, served no useful purpose at all. They were just there because, well, because they were there.
Today Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia, to name just the republics I’ve visited (or in the case of Kazakhstan, plan to visit) have eliminated visas. Just show up and stick around awhile, in the case of Georgia up to a year.
The former Soviet republics that maintain the old Soviet visa rules, and aggressively prevent people from getting in without a bureaucratic nightmare, include Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan. Those republics are being left behind. They’re suffering, they’re in recession, they’re missing out. The pressure is on, and in some cases they’re starting to loosen up.
For example, Belarus recently announced that Western tourists could fly into Minsk, the capital, for short stays without visas. And Americans can now visit St. Petersburg in Russia for 72 hours if traveling to St. Petersburg on a cruise ship (on the condition that you are sleeping on the ship and are accompanied by an authorized tour guide) or on ferries from Helsinki and Tallinn with St. Peter Line. Earlier this month Uzbekistan announced it would loosen, too.
A recent study found that relaxing visa rules can have a huge impact on tourism, even more than I would have guessed. Apparently a tough visa requirement eliminates some 70% of potential tourists. “The gains associated with eliminating travel visas appear to be very large.”
Perhaps the biggest visa hurdle these days arises from reciprocity. Visas used to be free or at least very cheap. Then came George W. Bush and his post-9/11 anti-visitor policy. Bush the Younger decided to seriously complicate the visa rules for those wishing to visit the United States, and then charge US$130 to boot.
The biggest impact of the Bush rules was reciprocity. Reciprocity says no matter how harmful, unwise, or complicated your rules are, I’m going to adopt the same rules. You punch me in the nose, I’m going to punch back, even if you’re mentally deranged. Many countries decided that if the United States issues visas for a huge fee, these days raised from US$130 to US$160, they’d do the same.
So the U.S. State Department picks up a few bucks to defray costs of issuing visas. But because of reciprocity, millions of Americans who travel abroad wind up paying billions of dollars in visa fees around the world. None of those fees go to the United States.
Vicki and I picked up our China visa in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A sign in the Chinese consulate says visas for Thais cost 1,000 baht, or about US$30. Visas for citizens of other countries cost US$33, except for Americans. Visas for Americans cost US$160.
Some countries decided they just wanted the money, but not the work of issuing visas. So for 10 years or so Chile and Argentina started charging Americans who showed up at their airports a US$160 reciprocity fee. Thankfully both countries quit this practice.
Brazil applies reciprocity universally. Instead of a visa policy that makes sense for Brazil, Brazil blindly adopts the policies of other countries. Since the United States demands expensive, cumbersome visas of Brazilians, Brazil requires the same nonsense from Americans.
Does this policy make sense for Brazil? Of course not.
Without reciprocity, tourism to Brazil would shoot up, according to the study referenced above. On a personal note, Vicki and I like Brazil. We used to visit regularly. But because of the expensive, time-consuming visas, we haven’t been there in years.
Why does Brazil adopt such a silly rule? The government thinks reciprocity makes Brazilians feel good, makes them feel they’re on a par with Americans and everyone else. And naturally the Brazilian government wants the visa money.
The American passport could be the world’s worst. It’s a simple argument. The United States requires visas of nearly all countries outside of Europe. As a result many of those countries require visas of Americans. Reciprocity. The other guy simply shows up and gets in. We Americans have to obtain a visa first.
Vicki and I finally got fed up with the visa system, and reciprocity, and adopted our own visa-free rule; we avoid visits to countries that require consular-visit visas. We’ve had to put off trips to Russia, Belarus, Brazil, Myanmar and a few other countries we’d like to visit.
I figure one day those countries—probably excluding Brazil—will drop their visa requirements and allow us in. Myanmar announced years ago they were dropping the visa requirement for Americans, but never did it. Rumor has it that Myanmar now make e-visas available online, but we’ve yet to try to use it.
With our visa-free policy we’re also kept out of many countries in Africa. And unfortunately, we’ve recently had to limit our visits to Thailand. Thai consulates abroad no longer want to issue the one-year, multiple-entry visas we used to enjoy. Luckily, Thailand permits visa-free travel for stays up to 30 days, so that’s what Vicki and I do. We spend more time in Malaysia and Vietnam, less in Thailand.
We could qualify for retirement visas in Thailand. Many people do, often via paid intermediaries. They then head to government immigration offices to update the visas every year. We’re unwilling to do that. So, like I said, we spend less time in Thailand these days. Vietnam now offers the one-year, multiple-entry visa we used to get for Thailand.
I can think of one or two legitimate reasons for requiring tourist visas. When Laos first opened up to foreign tourists, the government was concerned about having enough hotel space. So for the first few years, Laos limited the number of visas until a better tourist infrastructure developed. Bhutan has the same policy. The second reason is to keep tourists from overstaying, mainly in developed countries.
Finally, countries require visas because of security concerns. I think in most cases, though, countries use security as an excuse. For example, the Thai military makes visa policy in Thailand. The military’s role goes back to the Vietnam War, and the domino theory, communist insurgency, and border threats that came with it.
But those days are gone. Thailand enjoys secure borders. Still, the Thai military dictates visa policy, rather than the state department or tourist authority. And the military takes every opportunity to clarify that its visa policy is dictated solely by security concerns rather than to accommodate tourists.
So, again, for now, Vicki and I have decided to forget traveling to countries that demand a trip to their consulate to get a one-entry tourist visa.
Visa online, OK, visa on arrival, OK. But stay away from the visa cha-cha.
More and more countries are dropping their tourist-visa requirements. Eventually nearly the whole world will be visa-free.