Written by William R. Hummel, Esq., Partner, N.C. Board Certified Immigration Law Specialist.
Citizens of the United States are often not subject to onerous visa requirements for international travel due to the large number of countries that allow “visa free” travel or for submission of a visa application upon arrival.
Therefore, many U.S. citizens are unfamiliar with the visa process and several common issues that can arise and complicate international travel.
Countries that require a visa for travel
While many countries do allow U.S. citizens to travel visa free for short term trips for business or pleasure, some countries still require U.S. citizens to possess visas for any and all international travel. Notable examples include China, India, Brazil and Russia. Visa requirements vary significantly country by country, and some countries, such as Russia, are very particular about the documentation necessary to process a visa application.
In addition, while some countries do not require a physical visa stamp in a passport for entry, they do require electronic registration of travel or pre-payment of a fee before admission into the country. For example:
- Australia requires all U.S. citizens to obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) before departure to Australia.
- Argentina and Chile require U.S. citizens to pay a $160 reciprocity fee for admission as a visitor.
In addition, all individuals traveling internationally should carry evidence of the temporary nature of their trip, including evidence of temporary accommodations and a return plane ticket.
Limitations on visa-free travel
Even for those countries that allow U.S. citizens to travel visa free, an individual should take note of any conditions that are placed on visa free travel. Some countries, such as Thailand and South Africa, distinguish between travel for business and travel for pleasure and require those traveling for business to obtain a visa. Other countries limit the number of days one can be present without requiring a visa. One example would be those countries in the Schengen Zone (Germany, France, Italy, etc.) where an individual may only spend up to 90 days within a 180-day period.
Processing Time for Visas at the Consulate
When a visa is required for international travel, processing times can vary significantly, and applications are often difficult to expedite. While some countries such as China, allow for expedited processing in as little as 24 hours, numerous countries, such as Brazil or Russia, can require 15 to 30 business days or more for visa processing. Often expedited processing is not available except in the case of a legitimate humanitarian emergency. Almost all consulates reject the notion that a business trip is an emergency and state that the visa processing time is a factor travelers should consider when making travel arrangements.
In addition, several countries require that a visa application be submitted in person to a specific consulate in the United States. While many countries now allow for visa submission via mail or by proxy, some countries still require all visa applications to be filed in person. Those consulates that require a personal appearance will not waive it for any reason, including travel distance or inconvenience to the traveler.
What is business visitor travel?
Another issue that can come up during international travel by U.S. citizens is the question regarding the nature and scope of the trip. While activities such as business meetings are generally seen as permissible business visitor activities, the extent of other permissible activities varies significantly. Activities such as attending training, short term financial audits, consulting projects, technical repairs, IT support, etc. can trigger the need for a local work permit or employment visa. This can hold true even if the assignment is short in time duration and the individual will remain on U.S. payroll.
- Brazil prohibits those traveling on a business visa from providing any technical assistance. Those who are traveling to Brazil for short term technical assistance or emergency repairs are required to obtain a short-term work visa.
- India permits those traveling to India to receive training to travel on a business visa. However individuals traveling to India to provide training are required to have a work visa, even if the training is for a short duration.
- Canada looks at the type of activities in which an individual will engage while in Canada. An individual who is deemed to be entering the Canadian labor market by providing services, will generally be required to obtain a work permit for entry to Canada. Activities which require a work permit are those seen as capable of being performed by a local individual, such as site inspections, audits, etc.
- Australia has instituted a temporary work visa for individuals traveling to Australia for short term, non-ongoing work assignments, such as audits or consulting projects.
Country visa or work permit requirements vary significantly and it is important an individual understand travel restrictions before departure. If an individual is deemed to require a work permit or work visa, the person could be denied entry and sent back to the United States.
While the majority of international travel for U.S. citizens is straightforward and simple, an individual with travel plans should always check visa requirements and visa limitations before finalizing travel plans.