Traveling outside of the United States requires that you cross some T’s and dot some I’s to ensure you not only experience the many wonders of the world but also can easily return to the country you call home. While there are nice-to-know tips from frequent flyers regarding international travel, you’ll need-to-know this information for identifying the documentation needed for your international travels. 

What’s the difference between a passport, a visa and travel authorization?

A U.S. passport is required by any American citizen traveling abroad. It has the power to grant citizens access to more than 180 countries around the globe. A passport can come in two forms – a book or a card. While both options offer proof of your U.S. citizenship and identity, the less expensive passport card only is valid documentation for land border crossings and sea ports-of-entry from Canada, Mexico the Caribbean and Bermuda.

Tip: If traveling on a closed-loop cruise – one that originates and ends in the same U.S. city – a U.S. passport is not required.  

Passports and visas go together like peanut butter and jelly. While a passport provides the official documentation needed for an individual to leave their home country, a visa grants an individual the ability to enter a country. Passports often come loaded with several “visa pages” where the visa – typically in the form of a sticker – will be placed once the traveler is granted entry to a country.

When traveling to a select few countries, you may be asked to complete an online travel authorization in which travelers are screened for security and migrations risks. Travel authorizations often are only granted for short-term stays and are electronically connected to your passport rather than physically placed on a visa page. Beginning in 2021, U.S. citizens traveling to countries such as Australia, India and all those belonging to the European Union will be required to comply with this travel authorization security standard.

Do I need a visa for my upcoming trip?

While many countries do not require a visa of any traveler staying for fewer than 90 days, others may require a visa for those staying longer than a month. There are four general visa categories: tourist, student, business and immigration. Other types exist for special cases such as religious travel, diplomatic visits and international exchange or adoption programs.

The type of visa you need will depend on the purpose of your trip. Many countries have similar requirements for those traveling for business and tourism, but it can also vary widely from country to country. Check with the State Department website to see if your future travels will require a visa.

How do I get a passport, visa or travel authorization?

The application process for a U.S. passport is straightforward but requires travelers to fill out a form and provide proof of citizenship; a government-issued photo ID; a passport-approved, color head shot photo; and an application fee. Once issued, a passport is valid for 10 years.

Visa application fees range from $25 to $100 or more. Depending on your destination, the visa application may be able to be completed solely online or may require additional forms and documentation. This may include uploading a scan of your passport, printing application forms and mailing the necessary documents to your destination’s local consulate, embassy or approved visa processing agency. Plan to always apply for your visa well in advance of your trip as it often takes anywhere from two weeks to two months to complete the process. Even if you can apply for a visa upon arrival, applying ahead of time will save you precious travel time and ensure your peace of mind.

The travel authorization process also should be completed ahead of your departure, usually anywhere from four days to two weeks before your travel dates but be sure to consult the State Department or the website of your destination country to ensure all requirements are met.

For the most part, those traveling for a simple vacation or short business trip will rarely have to go through the visa application process, but always thoroughly research your destination to ensure you don’t get caught off-guard at the airport.