Suitcase, passport — wait, do I need a visa?

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Last year, on the final leg of my European cruise tour with Viking Cruises, I was on the bus heading for the Czech Republic when I browsed through my travel guidebook and got a shock. “At present,” it said, “citizens of the U.S., the E.U. and some other countries do not require visas; Canadians do.”

What? I thought: do I need a visa to enter the country? I didn’t have one, and no one had even mentioned it to me. It was too late to get one now. What to do? I decided to wait till we reached the border. Finally, the moment arrived – and I breathed a sigh of relief as my bus sailed right through without stopping. The Czech Republic was now part of Europe’s Schengen area, with its free border crossings. My book, luckily, was out of date.

That little crisis had a happy ending, but it started me thinking about the countries that do still require a visa for Canadians and Americans. Canadian passportI’ve always thought of my Canadian passport as a golden ticket that allows me to go wherever I please. But in fact, there are a significant number of countries that do insist on written permission to enter.

According to the Henley & Partners 2015 Visa Restrictions Index, Canadians have free access to 170 countries without a prior visa (some are issued at the border). That ties us for fourth in the world, with Belgium, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain. Surprisingly for a country with its share of foreign feuds, the U.S. comes in second at 172 visa-free countries, tied with Finland and Sweden. Germany and the U.K. are the champions, with 173 free passes.

That’s a lot of countries that open their doors wide for tourists. But it still leaves a good number that don’t. So, you’re asking: which countries do I need a visa to visit? The list includes many of the countries in Africa — in fact, almost all of the interior requires a visa, from Algeria down to Angola – as well as parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe (you can find a map for Canadians here and detailed information here). But there are also some countries that are favourite destinations for a lot of Western tourists.

If you’re thinking of visiting one of these countries, it pays to know about the visa requirements well before your plane takes flight. While the visa process has been streamlined in recent years (in most cases you can do it online), it still requires a few days to work through the red tape.

Here’s a look at some popular tourist destinations that still require visas for Canadian tourists (in most cases, the requirements are the same or similar for U.S. travellers).

China

China’s popularity as a tourist destination has grown in the past few years, and these days it’s possible to get bargain-China visapriced tours there, as I did in 2014. But you still have to get a visa, which involves filling out an online form and bringing or sending it to the Chinese consulate, along with your passport and other information.

The process isn’t that difficult, but the form can be tricky. There’s a passport-type photo needed, and the fee is a steep $100 Cdn (Americans pay an even steeper $140).

There is one break, though: China now grants a visa-free, 72-hour stopover to those flying into Beijing, Guanzhou, Shanghai, Xi’an and seven other destinations on the way to somewhere else. As well, you can escape the visa requirement if you take a sanctioned tour of some areas: more information here.

Brazil

Almost alone among its South American neighbours, Brazil still makes tourists from most countries get a visa. The process can take up to 15 days, and the application requires proof of your earnings or financial status. The fee for Canadians is $97.50 Cdn, and a hefty $160 US for Americans.

If you’re headed to Brazil for the Rio Olympic Games this year, however, there’s good news: Canadians and Americans will be exempt from the visa requirement between June 1 and Sept. 18, for a stay of up to 90 days.

 Russia

Church on Spilled Blood ST PetersburgWith the political situation these days, Russia has lost some of its lustre as a tourist destination. However, cruise ships still stop there on their way around the Baltic, and people still flock to see Red Square and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Russia requires visitors to get a tourist visa if they’re staying in a hotel, or a guest visa if they’re staying in private accommodations.

It takes 10 business days to process the application, and the fee for a single-entry visa is $150 Cdn, plus $40 for express delivery if you don’t pick up your documents in person. If you’re taking an organized tour, the tour company should give you a document to help with the process; on my Baltic cruise in 2012, booking a sanctioned tour allowed me to skip the whole visa requirement. (It’s possible to get the process expedited using a private company, but you’ll pay for it.)

India

India is known among veteran travellers as one of the great challenges: huge, diverse and amazingly exotic. So it’s no surprise a place like that requires a visa. Happily, however, it has modernized the process since I did it back in 1990, and now you can do the whole process online instead of marching off to the nearest Indian embassy.

What you get now is a tourist e-visa, which is good for visits of up to 30 days. You must apply at least four days prior to travelling. Then you print out a copy of the e-mail confirmation, and get a formal visa pasted into your passport upon arrival at one of 16 designated international airports. The fee is $48 US for Canadians — U.S. citizens pay $60.

Vietnam

This is one of the bigger draws in Southeast Asia, both for its historic and its cultural interest. And to visit, you need to get a tourist visa from the Embassy of Vietnam in Canada. You can apply by e-mail. The process takes five days, and a simple one-month visa costs $164.95 Cdn plus taxes.

However, there are companies that will expedite the process (and profess to reduce the cost) for you through a “visa on arrival” (VOA) process. You get an official letter of approval that you present at the VOA counter when you land at Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi or Da Nang airports. You pay a processing fee at the airport and get your visa.

Australia

Since they’re a First World country and a member of the British Commonwealth, you’d expect Australia to have an open-doors policy for Western visitors. But while it doesn’t exactly require a visa any more, Australia makes visitors from Canada and the U.S. get an Electronic TravelKoala_climbing_tree Authority (ETA).

This electronic document is electronically linked to your passport, and provides authorization to enter Australia for short-term tourist or business travel. You get to stay up to three months, as many times as you want, in a 12-month period; there’s a processing fee of $20 Australian.

Other inconveniences

Even among countries that don’t require you to bring a visa with you, there are some that impose obligations you might not be expecting. For example, Canadians going to Argentina are required to pay a $72 US “reciprocity fee” online prior to arrival: payments can be made at this website. (By the way, “reciprocity fee” means the charge is in retaliation for a fee imposed by our government.)

As well, a number of countries, especially in Latin America, impose an exit tax when you arrive or leave the country – typically from $10 to $40 US. If you’re lucky, this is included in the price of your tour; that’s now the case with those all-inclusive sun vacations in Cuba that Canadians love so much.

One last note

Even if you don’t need a visa for your next trip, you do need a valid passport, and a lot of countries require it to be valid for a minimum period after you enter or leave the country – usually three or six months. So when you’re making your travel plans, take a look at the expiry date on your passport. If it’s coming up quickly, you might have to get it renewed in a hurry; best to look as soon as possible.

Getting a visa is one of the downsides of travelling, like getting half undressed in the airport security line. But anything good requires a little work, and the experience of visiting these countries usually outweighs the pain of filling out the forms and paying the fee. Maybe some day all the politics and bureaucracy will be a thing of the past and the world will be one big Schengen zone – but don’t hold your breath.

Note: The regulations and fees quoted in this post are taken from government websites; however, these can change without notice, so check for up-to-date information if you’re planning to travel.

“Koala climbing tree” photo by Diliff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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