Disclaimer: As with most posts in this series, this one most specifically pertains to U.S. passport holders. I’m afraid I am unable to effectively speak about the documentation requirements for other nationalities.
Previously in this series:
- How to Plan a Trip Around the World: The Route
- How to Plan a Trip Around the World: Money Matters
- How to Plan a Trip Around the World: Timing is Everything
Now we come to one of the most frustrating, yet critical, topics in this process: Getting Documented. All the planning and money in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t present the correct papers to border patrol. And, for an extended trip around the world, the potential paperwork problems are, quite literally, magnified.
For this section, I’m going to break the topics into three major categories: Visa Issues, Passport Issues, and Driving Issues. Although it may seem a bit counterintuitive, I’m putting the visa discussion before the passport discussion because, on multiple occasions, research on the former has predicated decisions about the latter.
Have a budget for visas. These are one of the hidden travel costs that you don’t consider until after you have booked a flight. Visas can be surprisingly expensive, requirements are often hard to find online, and visa rules change with the blowing political winds. For instance, Turkey stopped issuing visas to U.S. citizens for about three months while I was trying to book flights through the country. Thank goodness the Turkish government relented, but that could change again at any moment.
I researched visa requirements for every country we would visit, and found that these countries would cost us the following:
|Country||Visa Fee (USD)|
That’s $1633.45 per person! I had to recover from the small heart attack and revise our budget to accommodate a new, hefty $3200 line item. Ouch.
Beware of the Schengen Visa problem. Everyone knows that U.S. citizens can travel to Western Europe without needing a visa. Although you do need a valid passport, the simplicity of booking last-minute flights to Spain or France or Greece without the hassle of any additional paperwork is why Europe tends to be the overseas vacation spot of choice for most Americans.
Everyone also knows that travel between countries in Western Europe doesn’t require any additional documentation. There are no passport controls, no checkpoints, no bureaucracy. Just open borders and open roads.
But that all changes if you spend more than 90 days in the countries of Western Europe within a 180-day period. You see, all those open borders come as a result of the Schengen Agreement, a 1985 treaty that regulates initial entry into and exit from member countries, which has effectively eliminated the need for internal border controls.
If you have traveled to western Europe since 1985, chances are you received a Schengen-related entry stamp but didn’t know it. That entry stamp, however, starts a countdown that will expire in 90 days. And, the consequences for overstaying past the 90 days are quite severe. You aren’t put in jail or anything, but you will likely receive a hefty fine and then be banned from Europe for life!
I’ve been to Europe dozens of times and had never heard of the Schengen Agreement until I started checking on visa requirements for Bulgaria and found this map. As you can see, Bulgaria is now a candidate for admission into the Schengen Zone. I was intrigued, started doing some more research, and then consulted the calendar to count just how many days we would be spending within the zone.
Then, sheer panic.
I had already booked tickets for this portion of the trip only to find that we would be spending 110 days in the Schengen Area. We would have to apply to extend our stay while in Europe, which my research had already shown was nearly impossible. I found some excellent advice on Nomadic Matt’s blog, but those recommendations simply wouldn’t work for us. We had already booked tickets further into the trip and were on a tight schedule.
Also, we love each other very much, so getting divorced and marrying a couple of locals to extend our stay (as Nomadic Matt jokingly suggested) wouldn’t be an option.
In the Timing is Everything segment, I wrote that it was necessary to revisit all of your requirements over and over, making incremental adjustments when necessary. Well, this was me in the threshing machine, trying to figure a way out of this predicament.
And then I found the loophole.
The 90-day countdown gets suspended every time you step outside of the Schengen Area and picks back up when you reenter it. Time in the United Kingdom doesn’t count against you. Nor does time in Northern Africa, Russia, or the majority of the Balkan countries. Basically, if it’s green or gray on the map above, then the clock is temporarily stopped!
We would be ducking in and out of the Schengen Zone the whole time. So I did a recount of the days and found that we will come in just short of the maximum, at 89 total. Whew! Crisis averted. On to the next one …
Use smaller visa alliances to your advantage. Mainly as an effort to increase tourism, several countries throughout the world have banded together to form visa alliances and allow ease of travel between them. Two alliances, in particular, will benefit us during this trip.
The first is the KAZA Univisa, an agreement between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Essentially, you can enter either country at a major airport or border crossing and request the Univisa upon arrival. For $50 USD, you can then travel back and forth between the two countries as often as you want within a 30-day period. The only stipulation is that the visa expires immediately if you leave Zambia or Zimbabwe, and reentry into either nation will cost you another $50.
This visa alliance is largely due to the fact that Victoria Falls lies on the border between the two nations and serves as a major tourist destination and revenue generator. You can even walk back and forth between the countries on the Victoria Falls Bridge, with your Univisa serving as documentation each time you pass through border control.
In Central America, the CA-4 visa serves a similar purpose. An agreement between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, this visa is similar to the Schengen but only pertains to land crossings. Travel by air will nullify the visa and force the requirement of additional documentation. Since Central America is still so far away, we are not yet sure if we will be able to take advantage of the CA-4 on this trip. We’ll keep you posted.
Use bilateral visa agreements to your advantage. Sometimes countries have reciprocal agreements that are part of old (but still valid) regulations. These agreements are often not advertised and can be very difficult to research online. It’s almost like those obscure scholarships that our guidance counselors told us about in high school: Are you under five feet tall, left-handed, and have the last name Vickerson? Then there’s a scholarship for you!
The most interesting bilateral agreement I found is between the United States and Norway. I came across it while researching our Schengen problem. Essentially, Norway allows U.S. citizens a stay of 90 days that doesn’t count against the Schengen number. Essentially, an American citizen could travel within the Schengen zone for 89 days and go to Norway on the 90th. That person could then stay in Norway for an additional 90 days under the bilateral agreement, effectively doubling the time spent in Europe. After a quick jaunt to a non-Schengen country for a couple of days, the 180-day period would be satisfied, the clock would completely reset, and the traveler would then be allowed another 90-days in the Schengen Zone.
While it seems like a loophole that is ripe to be eliminated, the resources I found seem to be legitimate and support the current regulations. I am glad, however, that we are still coming in under the 90-day maximum so we don’t have to rely on a technicality.
Check your passport expiration. While this may seem like a simple rule, the length of a trip around the world can be deceptive. Most travelers are aware of the standard “six months of validity and two blank passport pages” requirement before embarking on a trip. But we tend to look at those expiration dates from the time we start the trip, not the time we end it. Full of confidence that I would have plenty of validity left on my passport, I checked it after booking several segments and found that I would have less than a month remaining after our last flight before it expired.
Renewing a passport abroad is not an easy thing to do, and we weren’t going to be staying in the same location long enough to wait on the processing, so I would have to renew my passport before we left.
This did, however, provide me with an opportunity to get the “big book” upon renewal. For U.S. passport holders, this means nearly double the number of visa pages (52 instead of 28), and the cost is exactly the same as the smaller book. Just be sure to check the correct box on the renewal form. Honestly, I don’t know why everyone wouldn’t do this every time they renew.
This led us to start counting the number of pages left in Angela’s smaller passport. Although she still had years of validity left, we quickly realized that she would run out of room for stamps. Each of her Chinese and Egyptian visas took up an entire page, and several countries we would visit on this trip have similar large visas. We had to renew for her as well and, again, requested the big book.
At the point when we were getting the new passports, however, the trip started growing. Financial, logistic, and career questions were getting answered in favorable ways, so Angela and I started adding destinations and extending the length of the trip.
Our original two-week whirlwind had grown into a ten-month travel behemoth, and our projected country count had surpassed 100. Even the brand-new bigger passports with their extra pages couldn’t handle the number of border crossings we were now planning. Additionally, we were adding visits to countries that were in cold, if not open, warfare with each other. A stamp from Azerbaijan is frowned upon when trying to enter Armenia. Likewise, an Israeli stamp can preclude entry to several predominantly Muslim countries.
We were agonizing over how to proceed when Angela discovered that we could apply for a second valid U.S. passport! Only issued in unusual cases where a single passport will be insufficient to complete the travel plan (and even then, typically only issued to businesspeople or journalists who travel internationally for a living), we did some more research, made some calls, and found that we had a valid argument for the second passport.
It was a delicate process, though, involving written requests to the U.S. State Department as well as proof of travel in the form of dozens of airline and car rental receipts. To ensure that we jumped through all the proper hoops, we enlisted the services of The Passport and Visa Company, a for-profit organization specializing in obtaining government travel documents for a fee.
Angela had used their services for her Chinese visa and was very pleased with the results. And we were no less pleased when they deftly facilitated us getting the second passports. I couldn’t recommend them more highly!
Now, with 104 passport pages at our disposal, we would have no fear of running out of room for stamps. Moreover, we could get stamps for Azerbaijan in one and submit the other passport to the Armenian border officials, and neither country would have to know that we visited the other. Problem solved.
We are planning to rent cars and drive in over 60 countries. For that, I will need to carry a valid U.S. driver’s license, an international driving permit, and travel insurance that will supplement the already excellent coverage provided through our travel credit cards.
Check the expiration date of your current U.S. driver’s license. Mine was set to expire on my birthday in November while we are on our way to Petra, Jordan, and that would certainly pose a problem. In Tennessee, you can renew your driver’s license up to a year before it is set to expire, so I renewed early in April just to ensure I would receive the official license before we left. Check the regulations in your home state, however, to see how early you can renew yours.
Note: If you renew early, then your renewal date will forever be changed from your birthday. That’s not a big deal right now, but I’ll have to remember in eight years!
For an extended trip around the world where rental cars and driving will be involved, it’s also recommended that you obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). Note that this permit is in addition to your official state-issued license and not a substitute for it.
It’s easy and relatively cheap to obtain an IDP through the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) or the American Automobile Association (AAA), both of which have been authorized by the United States government to issue the permit. You can visit the website of either organization to download an application form which must be mailed along with a copy of your valid driver’s license and two passport photos. With either organization, the fee is $20 USD plus shipping and handling, and there is an option for expedited service.
Since there is an AAA office located near my work, however, I decided to just show up to view the process in person. Again, this was extremely easy. As I had just renewed my driver’s license that same morning, I was concerned about AAA accepting my temporary card. But I need not have worried. They accepted the temporary card, took my photos in the office, and I was done in less than 30 minutes.
While there, I learned some unexpected and invaluable information. Upon explaining the nature of the trip to the agent, she asked if I would be driving in Brazil or Uruguay. When I said yes, she informed me that I would need an additional document, the Inter-American Driving Permit (IADP) since Uruguay in particular does not recognize the standard IDP.
Because they charge to take the pictures for both documents, and because I had to essentially double the fees and taxes, my total for the day was $66.22. But that guarantees me the ability to drive anywhere in the world!
Bonus! Pro Tips
I really didn’t know where to include these tips in the series, but they are somewhat related to documentation, so here is where they will live.
Take extra passport photos with you. In addition to presenting your passport, visa, and proof of accommodation and onward travel, many countries (e.g. India, Kenya, Oman) also require you to submit a separate passport photo (or two) upon entry. Some require the photo to be identical to the one in your passport. Some require the photo to be in color, and some insist on black and white. So take a variety and be prepared to hand them out like business cards. The standard 2″ x 2″ size should work for most cases.
Take extra copies of the photo page of your passport(s). Instead of requiring just the photo, some countries demand a copy of your passport as well. To avoid delays through immigration, have these printed and ready to hand out, especially in Africa and remote places in Asia.
Keep your documentation secure. While you will almost always be required to submit physical copies of your travel documents, it is imperative that you keep digital copies of everything in an encrypted, password-protected cloud drive. And I’m not talking about storing those documents on your phone. Smartphones are easily stolen and compromised, so we keep nothing on there that could risk identity theft.
Create an account for each traveler with every airline you will use. Unless you’re tripping around the world with some kind of package deal, you will likely be flying on a multitude of airlines. As I mentioned in the Money Matters section, we aren’t brand loyal and will fly with anyone if the price and schedule are right. But, before you book the ticket, register and verify the account. That way, you will be able to include your new frequent flyer number for the airline and get bonuses on those first tickets.
And, since some of the airlines are a bit obscure, they will often offer perks to build their brand. We now have nearly 20,000 miles with some of the lesser known carriers. But those miles never expire! So, much like the leftover foreign currency I bring home after every trip, I’m always looking to spend it on the next adventure.