Why Do We Need Visas To Travel to Other Countries?

by SharonKurheg

Traveling to other countries is a great way to not only see the world, but to learn about places and people who may not be exactly like us.

You obviously have to plan several things when putting together a trip to another country. Obviously, what to wear and what to see are important, but you’d do that to travel within the U.S, too. If you’re traveling outside the U.S., you also have to plan for how you’ll communicate if you don’t speak the same language they do. How to read signs or maps or know what public transportation to take, if their written language is different from yours. Are there certain social or cultural norms you should know about? If you plan on carrying cash, do you know where to exchange money and what the exchange rate is?

Perhaps most important, you’ll want to know if you’ll need to get either a visa or a visa waiver (or, occasionally, neither) in order to visit. Wikipedia maintains such a list, but it’s probably safer to check with the embassy/embassies of the country/countries you plan to visit, so you are guaranteed to get their most up-to-date requirements.

Not long ago, we posted a piece about how to avoid scammers’ e-visa websites. But a reader brought up an important point – why do we need visas and visa waivers in the first place?

What are visas and visa waivers?


A visa (sometimes called a travel visa) is a conditional authorization granted by a government that allows a visitor from another country to enter, remain within, or leave its country or territory.

Visas often include limits on the duration of the foreigner’s stay (i.e. 1 year, 5 years, etc.), the number of visits allowed during that time frame, the geographical areas within the country that they’re allowed to visit, and the dates they may visit it/them.

There are different types of visas for different types of activities a foreigner plans to participate in while in a foreign country:

  • Travel/tourist visa (for leisure/tourism. This is the most common type of visa and is generally valid for 30 days to 6 months)
  • Work visa (required if you want to be employed in the host country)
  • Business visa (required if you’re doing business without being in the host country’s labor market. i.e. business conference, doing business with another company, etc. You must not be getting paid from any business within the country)
  • Student visa (nonimmigrant visa that allows the bearer to enroll in college/university in the host country. Student visas are also used by high school exchange students)
  • Refugee/Asylum visa (for individuals fleeing persecution, war, natural disasters and other situations in which their life is at risk)
  • Working holiday visa (allows the traveler to undertake temporary employment in a country through which they are traveling. Not all countries offer this visa)
  • Spousal visa (allows partners to visit each other when the couple isn’t from the same country)
  • Transit visa (some countries require a transit visa when a person is just “passing through” a country, like if you have a layover for more than just a couple of hours)
  • Immigrant visa (these allow the bearer to reside permanently in the host country. All the other visas mentioned are nonimmigrant visas)

Evidence of having a visa is historically a stamp or sticker placed in the applicant’s passport or other travel documents. In more recent years, a visa can also exist electronically.

Visa waiver

A visa waiver allows citizens of a participating country to travel to another country for upwards of a short period of time (usually “X” number of days, weeks or months). Countries participating in visa waiver programs usually (but not always) have reciprocal agreements with these other countries that allow their respective citizens to travel to the other country without a visa. These countries are generally considered to be “safer,” and their respective travelers are considered to be (A) less dangerous and (B) less likely to apply for asylum.

You still have to apply for a visa waiver, but the information the country requires of you is significantly less. The application is more to keep track of who’s coming and going, rather than to make sure you’re not going to try to relocate permanently or blow something up.

Note: It’s been said that a visa waiver is still a visa of sorts. It’s just an automatic one; you asked to visit from this date to that date and they say yes. And there are still restrictions – you can’t stay too long, get a job, etc. Your passport may still need to be valid for X amount of time. You can be a tourist for X amount of time, and then go home. Consider it “Visa lite”.

What are the requirements for a visa or visa waiver?

Whether you need to get a visa or a visa waiver, a destination country’s appropriate government website will tell you what you need to know/do.


Requirements for a visa will vary from country to country. It typically includes filling out a request form, a photograph, other supporting travel documents (i.e. flight and hotel info, letter of invitation, passport with X amount of time until it expires, etc.), and, of course, a fee. Some countries also require an interview.

Depending upon your history (i.e. a DUI, arrest/jail time, immigration status, etc.), you may not be granted a visa.

Visa waiver

Requirements for a visa waiver will vary from country to country but it typically requires filling out a request form, other supporting travel documents (i.e. e-passport with X amount of time until it expires), and, of course, a fee.

Depending upon your history (i.e. a DUI, arrest/jail time, immigration status, other places you’ve visited, etc.), you may not be granted a visa waiver. You may be required to request a visa instead, or you may not be allowed into the country at all.

Why do we need visas or visa waivers?


Countries have visas in order to check and control the flow of visitors in and out of the country. It’s also a way to help prevent illegal immigration, security issues and the potential of those intent on other criminal activities from entering their country. Forcing travelers to apply for a visa for the possibility of entry allows the governmental authorities to vet potential visitors before saying they can visit (or not).

Charging for a visa is a way for the country to earn money from potential tourists. The fee for a visa application may or may not vary depending on what country a person is from, how old they are, their reason for visiting, etc.

Some countries have visa restrictions as a tit-for-tat measure (read: reciprocation for visa restrictions that are imposed on their own nationals).

Visa waivers

Some countries offer visa waivers in order to check and control the flow of visitors in and out of the country. But since they “trust” the citizens of that country (remember, most visa waiver programs are reciprocal), they don’t vet them as much.

Some countries have visa waivers as a tit-for-tat measure (read: reciprocation for visa waiver restrictions that are imposed on their own nationals).

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