Ask the Experts

Foreign Filings

Like a lot of college students, I’m going abroad. The difference is, though, that I’m not going during the school year or through a school program. It was important to me to maximize my time on campus, so I worked with my parents to come up with a plan for going abroad on my own. During the summer, I’m going to visit a few countries over the course of a few weeks, visiting historic sites and doing a little bit of an ‘independent study abroad’ program, so to speak.

But one tricky thing about doing this all on my own is that I don’t have the school to guide me about all of the paperwork I need. I’m getting ready to research all the stuff I need to do, but I don’t even really know where to start. For instance, I need a visa, right? How is that different from a passport? Help!

Never fear! It’s important to have your paperwork in order before you head abroad, but the good news is that the information you’ll need for foreign travel is relatively straightforward.

First of all, you will of course need a passport to leave the country. If you don’t already have one, now’s the time to get one, the process can take 2 to 3 months when you include the time it takes to get some of the required documents. You can apply for a passport in person and online. You can find the list of the documents you’ll need on government websites. You can get your passport photo taken at all sorts of places, including most pharmacies (like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid) and shipping stores (like FedEx and UPS stores).

If you do already have a passport, make sure that it hasn’t expired. You can learn more about passport renewals online and will be able to complete the process online with the government’s soon-to-launch Remarkably, only 36% of Americans have passports–when you see how easy it is to get one, though, you’ll wonder why!

Unlike a passport, a visa is not always required for international travel. Depending on the length of your stay, you may be able to visit with a passport alone. Visas are required for brief tourist visits in some countries, but in many countries they are used only for longer stays. Some countries will let you visit for 90 days with a passport; others will require you to apply for a visa for even shorter trips. You can find information on travel visas online, including on private sites and on sites run by the U.S. government and foreign governments. The U.S. Department of State has a good database sorted by country.

Studying abroad sometimes involves other types of paperwork, but that’s often because of university requirements. For travel alone, a passport and (perhaps) a visa will be all you’ll technically need. However, it’s a good idea to have information about your accommodations and plans too, customs officers will want to know what your intentions are while you’re abroad. Another good thing to keep track of is your health: make sure your immunizations are up to date, and have a plan for healthcare abroad.

Traveling is fun, and while it’s important to get the paperwork right, there’s not as much of it as you might imagine! Just make a list of important deadlines and make sure that your plans, your passport, and (if necessary) your visa are ready on the day you leave. Have fun!

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” — Mark Twain

Suzanne Hite is a former publications editor serving the technology services sector.