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November 27, 2018


As Phileas Fogg set out to travel the globe in Around the World in 80 Days, he repeatedly sought, procured, and presented visas, or his “visaed passport.” The necessity for lawful travel documents was not absent from author Jules Verne’s imagination in the nineteenth century. A “visa,” which has Latin origins meaning “paper that has been seen,” is a conditional authorization issued by a country to visitors wishing to enter the country. A visa does not guarantee entry, but simply permission to enter. It’s often connected to a passport, either electronically or by a sticker or stamp inside a passport, and processed by customs officials upon attempted entry into the issuing country. Here “Teaching Legal Docs” will provide an overview of types of visas, examine how they are used, and explore what features they have.

A Network of International Policies

Visa policies, which became most popular after World War I, are important factors for influencing international travel and tourism. They also ensure national security, and control immigration. Policies are determined by a network of formal agreements between nations. An estimated two thirds of countries around the world require certain visitors to obtain visas before entering their borders. The World Tourism Organization observing that visa requirements have relaxed over time, declared in 2015 that we live in one of the most “open” times in history. Some scholars suggest that visa policies “shape the geopolitical architecture of the planet,” or can be “proxies for good international relationships.” In other words, if countries share a positive relationship, chances are visa policies will be less strict for travelers from both countries.
In the United States, visas are issued by the U.S. Department of State, or U.S. embassies or consulates abroad—the Executive Branch of U.S. government. While visa policy is controlled by the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, Congress, also plays a role in shaping particular aspects of visa policy, such as visa waiver programs.

When Do You Need to Obtain a Visa?

Typically, visas are necessary when trying to enter another country, and often depend on the length of the planned visit. The United States, for example, may not require a visitor to obtain a visa unless their stay extends past 90 days. Kyrgyzstan requires a visa for American travelers whose stay will extend past 60 days. A Philippine traveler heading to Nicaragua, for any length of time, however, must obtain a visa upon arrival in the country. Each country has specific policies with regard to travelers from specific other countries. Some countries demand visa applications before a traveler attempts to make the trip. Other countries will issue visas onsite, as a traveler arrives at a customs station along the border of the country. Countries may require visa applicants to submit to photographs or fingerprinting, share medical records, or prove income. Slovakia, for example, demands that American visitors applying for visas show proof of medical insurance and “funds of $50 per person per day.” Canada examines criminal records, including misdemeanors and alcohol-related driving offenses. The United States requires international travelers to submit visa applications 30 days in advance of arrival into the country, and complete an in-person interview at an American embassy or consulate.

Assorted Types and Limitations

Currently, the United States issues over 50 different types of visas to certain foreign visitors. They are organized by both length of stay and immigrant and nonimmigrant categories. “Short stay” visas, for example, might be granted to specific workers, such as athletes or artists, or to individuals seeking medical care, or refugees. “Long stay” visas might be issued to students, journalists, long-term residents, or refugees who have been granted asylum.  An “immigrant” visa may be issued to someone marrying a U.S. citizen in the United States. There are also “diplomatic visas,” which are official documents issued to diplomats visiting the United States.
Visas typically put restrictions on visits or visitors. They might limit the length of the visit, prohibit the visitor from working in the country, or limit the traveler to visiting certain locations within the country. Visas may be single or multi-use. All countries that require visas for entry have a variety of types of visas, and potential limitations to visa-holders, so travelers must select appropriate designations based on their planned visits.

Visa Documents … or No Documents

Some visas are traditional physical documents, and will include security features, but paper visas are increasingly rare in this technological era. Many visas are inserts that are added into passports, in the form of additional pages or stickers. These have many of the same security features as modern paper visas—embossing, watermarks, holographic text or images, bleeding ink, and raised text, for example. Other visas are electronic and not physically connected to a passport, but appear when a passport is scanned by a customs agent. A visa to enter one country might be written in a particular language. Greece issued visas written in French into the 1990s, for example, because French was the language most recognized for diplomatic purposes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Typically, a visa will include the name of the issuing country and the place of issuance, a photo of the traveler, information specific to the traveler, including biometric information, passport information, the reason for and length of the planned visit, and any visa-specific restrictions or guidelines. There might also be a notation or sticker reflecting payment of any visa fees. Visa fees vary from country to country, and each country sets their own pricing policies. A German visa might cost an American traveler $65, while an American visa might cost a traveler $160, for example. Visas also include official seals of the issuing country, and possibly an authorizing signature.
It is important to understand that each country has specific policies in place, so American travelers planning to visit other countries should check the policies of those countries in advance of a visit to ensure that visa protocols are followed correctly. If a visit requires a visa, travels might observe how the visa is delivered—paper, sticker, electronic—and what type of information is included, to gain a better understanding of this very ordinary, but highly legal, aspect of international travel.

Visa Free Travel

Many countries have visa-free travel relationships with other countries that allow their residents to enter the country under certain terms without obtaining a visa. The United States currently has visa-free travel arrangements with 174 other countries around the world. Often, under the terms of the arrangement, American travelers are obligated to secure visas only if a planned visit will extend beyond 90 days. It effectively leads to visa-free travel for tourists and other persons planning shorter visits.

Approximately 38 countries are part of the United States’ Visa Waiver Program, which Congress introduced in 1996 in order to encourage international tourism to the United States. In order for a country to be part of the Visa Waiver Program, the country must offer visa-free travel to U.S. travelers. The United States ranks third (alongside Denmark, Finland, Italy and Spain) in the world for visa-free travel access for its citizens.
If the United States offers visa-free travel to residents of a country, there is an expectation of reciprocity. In other words, American travelers should receive the same visa-free travel benefits in that country. This principle of reciprocity has been the crux of diplomatic tensions between the United States and other countries in recent U.S. history. In 2008, when the United States debates installing missile defense sites in Poland, the fact that Polish citizens did not enjoy visa-free travel to the United States became a point of contention.  In 2017, the European Parliament voted to rescind visa free travel for Americans after the United States failed to lift visa requirements for certain European Union nationals. Ultimately, the European Commission, which manages day-to-day business of the European Union, agreed not to rescind visa free travel for Americans, lest the action inspire the United States to reciprocate by making travel for EU residents to the United States more of a hassle.

A Lasting Travel Document

From Phileas Fogg in the nineteenth century, to travelers today, visas have proven to be longstanding, and almost universal, travel documents. They are significant legal documents, whether they appear in document, sticker, or electronic form, and convey a basic set of information to both the issuing country, and the country of destination for the international traveler. Jules Verne might be struck by the visa free travel policies, and the vast international web of policies that govern the entire system, but the concept and the complexity of it all surely would not be lost on him.