Few things can dampen the joy of vacation anticipation more than the arduous process of obtaining a visa, especially for destinations such as Brazil, Russia, China and India. Wonky web forms, confounding instructions, long lines at embassies and ever-changing requirements — likeVenezuela’s new immigration rules, which now require Americans to procure visas — are par for the course.
How to mitigate frustration? Outsource the bureaucratic snarl to visa services companies and travel agents. Here’s a three-step plan for success.
1. Learn the rules. Your first stop should be the State Department website, where you can look up your desired destination and find out if you even need a visa. Here you’ll also discover other essential information, like how many blank pages must be in your passport (ignore this at your peril; failure to comply may get you sent home) and how long your passport is considered valid. You can learn more at Travel.state.gov. (Be aware that if someone in your party has a passport from a country other than the United States, that person is likely to have different requirements.)
2. Mind the season. Filing paperwork about two months in advance is ideal for any visa in high season, said Ginny Caragol, the director of leisure business development for Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. When you apply for a tourist visa affects how long it takes to be approved (though some countries have restrictions as to how far in advance you can apply). Russia’s high season, for instance, is June through August, so you will wait longer and pay more if you do not apply a couple of months in advance, Ms. Caragol said. Or say you want to go to Brazil. Now is a good time to apply for that visa, she said, because you are likely to receive it in two or three weeks. Trying to get a visa for Brazil in January or February as its carnival approaches, on the other hand, is an exercise in futility. “Brazil will sometimes say it takes two months to get a visa,” she said. And at that point, she continued solemnly, “there is nothing you can do.” Well, almost nothing. Some, shall we say, creative travelers have attempted to circumvent long waiting times by flying to Argentina and then applying at the embassy there for a visa, she said. But such stunts don’t come with guarantees.
3. Hire help. You can miss a day’s work waiting in the interminable line outside the Chinese consulate only to be told you have to go home and do it all again because you filled out the form incorrectly. But for a few hundred dollars, you can hire a visa services company to make sure your paperwork is in order and do the legwork for you. For busy people, these companies are a blessing, especially if you’ve waited until the last minute to apply for a visa. In general, visa services companies can help you complete the necessary forms, tell you if you need a money order and send or take your passport to an embassy.
While a number of reputable visa services, like those from Ultramar Travel Management, are primarily used by business travelers, there are plenty of options for leisure travelers.
Ms. Caragol and her leisure travel colleagues work closely with two leading visa services companies, CIBTvisas and Passport Rush. Like several tour operators, they also use VisaCentral, part of CIBT.
Indeed, Abercrombie & Kent, the luxury tour company, recommends VisaCentral because it expedites service: Many of Abercrombie’s clients are frequent travelers who can’t part with their passports for long, which is often necessary when applying for a visa.
Gary Leff, a co-founder of Milepoint.com, a website for veteran and would-be frequent fliers, and the blogger behind the miles and points site View From the Wing, has directed his readers to Allied Passport and Visa, which has given them discounts. He said the feedback from readers who have used the visa service has always been positive, though he has yet to try it himself because he’s one of those frequent fliers who have not been able to part with their passport.
The cost of visa services companies varies greatly depending on a number of factors, particularly shipping and how quickly you need the visa. Ms. Caragol said the services fees start around $85. At CIBTvisas and VisaCentral, the full cost also typically includes base fees, government agency and consular fees, delivery charges and foreign national surcharges. CIBTvisas and VisaCentral have lists of their fees at Cibtvisas.com/service-fees and Visacentral.com/service-fees. Passport Rush lists its fees atPassportrush.com/Visas2.htm under each country. Allied Passport & Visa has rates at Alliedpassport.com/rates.php.
In an age of do-it-yourself travel, experts like Ms. Caragol guide you through what can sometimes be a mind-numbing process, or one you simply don’t have time to unknot. She can tell you that having even one stamp on the second-to-last blank page in your passport can prevent you from entering South Africa, or that getting a visa for India is easier these days thanks to its nascent online form. (American tourists can now apply for a visa online rather than visit an Indian embassy and, once approved, receive their visa upon arrival in India.)
Travelers who plan vacations with Ms. Caragol and who need visas are told about the requirements such as online forms, photos, money orders and embassy appointments. They may also fill out a special CIBTvisas page. If clients are going to a place that allows them to get a visa upon arrival in the country such as Cambodia or Tanzania, Ms. Caragol has a source in the country meet them when their plane lands to help them through the process.
The visa services companies mentioned above work with travelers all over the country, though there are also local options. For example, my colleague Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveler columnist, used Bella’s Travel in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to obtain a Russian visa. To check on a service you have heard about or have seen on Yelp or elsewhere online, just Google the business name and the word “reviews.” That can turn up comments from multiple sites, allowing you to read what’s being said on TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic and the Better Business Bureau.