What it's like to need a visa

In last couple of years I had broken a long streak of being stuck in the city and traveled to a several WordCamps abroad. That required applying for visas multiple times. And ranting about the process. And observing how it makes a borderline surreal story to people from other countries.

One of my friends from Britain (hi, Siobhan!) needed to apply to a visa for India and her reaction was “Now I get you”.

So what is it like to need a visa?

Wait, you need a visa?

There are a little under 200 countries in the world.

Folks from western countries typically have visa free (or visa on arrival) access to around 170+ of them. That excludes central Africa, middle East, and few countries they might not be on peachy terms with at the moment (like Russia). This makes them rank around the very top of the list for ease of travel in regards to visas.

Ukraine has such access to only 79 countries. Ex–USSR, some of south America, some of Africa, countries with prominent tourist industry. This ranks us 50+ positions down in the list.


In Ukraine we have internal passports for ID, issues at 16 for a lifetime. Foreign travel requires separate “abroad” passport.

You need to apply for one and they are valid for 10 years. However since visas take two passport pages each (one for visa, another for arrival/departure stamps) with active travel you need to apply for new passports more often than that.

You can apply directly to the government centers, but it’s typical service at travel agencies to handle your application for a fee (make sure documents are in order and so on).

The normal application takes 30 days. The expedited is half time, double price. Some agencies offer to make it even faster (up to overnight) at even more premium.

Another issue with passports is that because of legislative issues we don’t have biometric functionality in them yet. In theory (it have been postponed multiple times) new biometric passports will start to be issued in 2015. They will be mandatory for some things (like hypothetical visa free access to Schengen area, long in the works). It is expected to be a huge bottleneck for them to be issued to holders of current passports.

Documents for application

The list of documents required for visa application varies by the country, current politics, and who knows what else. There are several staple items.

Invitation letter

My travel to the conferences is classified as business visit. In practice it is typically same short term visa as for tourism. Unlike tourism I can’t just go because I want to, invitation letter is required from the business entity in the target country.

At best it can be sent over email, however some countries will require original sent via snail mail. Letter must include specific dates, purpose of the visit, and contact person in the company.

Depending on the country the information about company might be required (their registration number or business registration in full). It is recommended to include copy of ID for contact person too.

Another aspect of conference travel like that is that you get visa for a very short duration. In practice it tends to be single entry visa for the duration of conference and travel days, effectively only 4–5 days.


The photos are required, fitting the specific requirements. Photos must always be fresh, usually no older than 3 or 6 months.

So this is a visit to have fresh set taken and printed almost every time.

Financial information

Why we need typically need visas relatively a lot is in first place because we are on a poor side as a country. The most important aspect of application is considered to be providing sufficient financial information. It displays that you have funds for visit itself and are currently financially secure in your home country.

In my case this means a visit to my bank and request for:

  1. Official statement of funds present in my account (they charge fee for this one)
  2. Printout for history of operations in my business account for last 3–6 months
  3. Printout for history of operations in my card account for last 3–6 months

And of course I need to provide copy of my business registration and sometimes copy of last taxes submitted.

Visa agency

While it is slightly frowned upon by embassies, it is common to make use of travel or more specialized visa agency to help with submission.

Agency will help with or altogether handle:

  1. Putting together and verifying list of documents required for specific country at the time
  2. Filled out application paperwork
  3. Verified translation of documents to English, if needed
  4. Reservation for hotel and flight tickets (latter is useful since you don’t have to, and shouldn’t really, pay to reserve flight without visa)
  5. Travel medical insurance, fitting requirements

Depending on target country and exact services their fee is somewhere upwards of $50.


Once you have all the documents and filled out paperwork you can start with actual application process. You can usually do it way in advance, but typically no earlier than three months before planned trip. Also you might not be able to apply for new visas if you have related visas not used/expired yet.

Typically you pay the visa fee (universally not refundable, in range of from $30 to $150 or more, depending on the country) and get an appointment.

The current practice around here is for embassies to outsource applications to a specialized contact centers, sometimes shared by multiple countries.

Depending on the country and other factors (repeat visits) you need to submit application in person or agency can handle it for you.

Contact centers takes its separate fee for handling, your package of documents, passport, and forwards them to embassy for a decision.

The typical norm for the process, from application to receiving passport back, is usually set at 10 working days. Some applications need to be sent outside of the country to process and can take over a month. Once it is ready you are notified to pickup your passport, hopefully with new visa in it.

During a trip

There are several times during each trip when visa comes up.


When you are boarding a flight your passport is checked for valid visa to a destination, if you require one.


Once you land you go through immigration control line for foreigners.

Your passport and visa are checked, then at the very least you are asked about purpose of the trip. The most common trick by immigration officers is to ask about dates of your visa/trip, while holding on to your passport. You are expected to answer clearly from memory.

Other typical questions include requests to show:

  • copy of invitation letter
  • return flight tickets
  • hotel reservation

There might also be some of free form question about what’s conference is about and such.

In the end you get your entry stamp with the date next to visa.


It is under known, but in many countries it is required for traveler to register with authorities for anything but very short stay.

Almost universally your hotel will silently handle it for you, asking for your passport on check in.

However if you have less organized place of stay (such as renting apartment or staying with friends) you might be required to do this yourself. Otherwise you might be questioned about your stay when leaving the country.


In reverse of the process immigration will check your passport and make a departure stamp with date. It is important that you get the matching stamps. Otherwise you will likely have to prove that you had properly left the country, applying for visa in the future.

Usually no questions asked, but you might be asked about your flight.

If your visa is single entry then at this point it’s done and closed.

Every time

So there it is, start to finish, the process I have to go for almost every foreign trip.

Dear organizers,

If you are a conference organizer, please be aware that getting a visa can be involved, costly, and nerve–wrecking process. It’s not a formality and there are plenty of hoops to jump to make it to your event. Please factor it in for announcing dates and sending out visa invitation letters well in advance.

Thank you and see you around. :)

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  • slaFFik #

    High five from Kharkiv. The process described really sucks :(
  • Andrey “Rarst” Savchenko #

    Yeah, the recurrent nature of it and uncertainty are great drag on nerves. :\