They're complicated, and they change by the nation. Here are the basics of how to get a visa.
What exactly is a visa?
Essentially, a travel visa is a document that shows you’re allowed to enter a specific country, for a specific length of time, to do a specific thing such as tour or study or work. Unless they submit a waiver, our government requires visitors from other countries to get a visa before visiting the U.S.
With regards to American tourists, some countries require visas, some do not, and some base the need for a visa on your length of stay.
Do I need one?
First, visit the “Americans Traveling Abroad” page of the U.S. State Department website to see if the country you’re visiting requires a visa. There, you’ll view the specific “entry requirements” for that nation.
Almost without question, countries in the Schengen Area -- a coalition of 26 mostly European countries as far north as Norway and as far south as Greece -- allow tourists to visit for up to 90 days without a visa. Check the websites of these nations' consulates, but it’s fairly certain you won’t need a visa to enter them.
Lots of non-European destinations (China, Brazil, and Vietnam, for example) require a visa no matter how long you’re staying.
What's my first move?
When hunting for visa applications online, you’ll want to start at the embassy or consulate website for the nation you’re visiting. Typically, you’ll fill out visa application forms online, print and mail them in, or hand deliver them to the nation’s local consulate.
After processing your documents, the consulate will mail you a visa that attaches into your passport. On average, the process takes anywhere from two weeks to two months.
What will it cost?
You'll usually have to send a money order or check along with your visa application. Typical visas range in cost from $50 to $200. For example, a Brazilian visa costs $160, and an Indian visa costs $76, barring additional fees.
Can I make the process faster?
If you’re in a pinch, there are agencies that will fill out paperwork and secure a visa for you at lightening speed-- sometimes even overnight. Service fees are about $100 to $300 per visa, but if you’re in a hustle or overwhelmed with documents, they may be worth it.