"Aren't you a little young to be boarding a plane all by yourself?"
March 28, 2012 10:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm a travel novice about to embark on a world tour with a deliberately fuzzy itinerary. Help me navigate the mysterious badlands of interacting with immigration & customs officials, rogue cops, and hostel mates. Time-saving travel "hacks" for quickening the visa approval process are also greatly appreciated.

I'd like to be armed with as much common sense as possible before starting my journey. I know almost nothing about how visas work and what raises flags at borders and airports (besides obvious things like yelling "Death to America!"). I'm less concerned about being stuck up by a knife-wielding thief than I am about being thrown into a holding cell for looking at an immigration officer the wrong way.

My vague sequence of zones is as follows, starting from Canada:
Russia (optional)
The Czech Republic (optional)
The Schengen Zone (Western Europe)
USA (east coast this time)

and back to Toronto.

I don't imagine responding to "how long to you plan to stay in X?" with "I really have no idea", and to "papers please" with "what papers?" goes over well. Obviously Europe won't be as big a concern as the first half of my trip, but I'd still rather not come off as an utter dunce. What are some questions from immigrations and customs officials that I need to be wary of?

Do I need to get all my tourist visas for SE Asia, India, and the Middle East before I purchase my first ticket? In case I do run into trouble at the airport, what recourse do I have with the Canadian government? How do I deal with potential shakedowns by corrupt cops? What about situations like this one (scroll down to "Act One. Chinese Checkmate.")?
posted by identitymap to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have traveled to every place on your list except Russia.

Your best bet could be to go through your itinerary and google something like 'China Visa Canadian' and then 'China Entry Requirements'. You can google things like 'Egypt Visa Istanbul' to see where you can get visas. Check LP's message boards, the Thorntree for info, too. Also, hang out at a bookstore for a couple hours and look at the pertinent LP guidebooks for all the same info.

Some visas should be procured in advance. Right now I am in India. As a US citizen I have obtained a 10 year visa, only available while in the US. Most tourists get 6 months visas while in their home countries that begin the day they get them. You can get an Indian visa abroad but it is likely to be valid for just 3 months.

Some countries say they require a ticket for onward travel. I was in Africa for over a year without a ticket but held onto a printout of a possible itinerary for border issues that never came up. You will find this info when you google individual countries and/or look at the 'Getting There and Away' section of LP guides.

It is doubtful you would have any immigration hassles. These countries are well on the tourist trail. Ask for the maximum time allowed if asked, "I plan to spend 30 days" etc.

Please travel light- maximum 15 pounds! You do not need more, can get all you need abroad (save big shoes in SOME parts of China and tampons in SMALL Indian villages), and will be the envy of the 20kg-ers.
posted by maya at 11:03 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

For Thailand and turkey- nominate a hOtel (use google to guess) and for both you can purchase visa on arrival last time I was there. The lonely planet website can give you info on these things on your website, FYI. I have an EU passport so xan't comment on visa entry for those places. However, with the exception of Russia i can confidently say the places you are going are well-touristed and the officials are quite familiar with backpackers with fuzzy plans. Do choose a hotel and have their address ( you do not actually have to stay there). Have a wonderful time and learn to say thank you in every appropriate language for a friendlier result!
posted by jojobobo at 11:08 PM on March 28, 2012

You might want to familiarize yourself with travel document expediting services like TravelDocs. I used to travel extensively internationally and TravelDocs helped me out enormously a couple of times when I found out (two days before my departure) that a.) I couldn't get into the Democratic Republic of Congo with a passport with less than six months validity, b.) my visa application to Cameroon fell through, and ...

I realize that no African countries are on your list - and - travel document expediting services are not cheap - BUT - they can be a lifesaver when you do run into a bind.

Also, consider visiting a travel clinic and getting any necessary immunizations (Hep A/B, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, etc.) You might also want to look into getting a prescription for malaria prophylactics for SE Asian countries. Make sure you take anti-diarrheal meds (Imodium in the US) -- even when food prep conditions are pristine you will undoubtedly have a case of unfamiliar micro-bugs entering your system and absolutely NOTHING is worse than sitting on a tiny little van/bus making your way to the coolest site ever all while trying to hold in your need to ... you get the idea.

Finally, as maya recommends: travel light! No matter where you stay you will have the ability to wash out underwear, etc., in a sink so no need to pack two weeks worth of whatever.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:23 PM on March 28, 2012

As you are a Canadian, I don't imagine you'll have a problem with the visas you need - you may wish to start a spreadsheet or document regarding the countries you wish to visit and do a background search for each country's visa requirements for a Canadian citizen. You may find that many might have a waiver program if you're intended visit is shorter than some specified duration and thus could conceivably plan your travel accordingly.

Keeping and checking such a list will also allow you to summarize the common requirements for visas - most likely it will be:

1. Passport size photos of a specific type - make at least 6 to 8 copies more than the total required by all countries (or more, if its affordable). Many places say "one photo" but then at the window ask you for another one as well.

2. Bank statements to prove you are going to support yourself through out this trip - some you will have at the beginning but you might wish to set up an internet system so that out in some country you will be able to download and printout a more recent statement if required.

Also credit cards and proof of source of income (if not all of it will be available when you begin your travel but will show up later on).

3. Vaccinations and health insurance (check your country list requirements - at least for a Schengen visa they require proof of health insurance, which can be purchased via TravelMed or some such)

4. Proof of return to country of residence - employer's letter, job, school or whatever - again the country checklist will allow you to quickly see which countries require what.

5. Other such things

Prepare a master set of all this and scan them - so that you are traveling with a hard copy and soft copy and can then pull out whatever required at any point during your travel.
posted by infini at 12:08 AM on March 29, 2012

I travel a lot. Often for work, occasionally for pleasure. As an Australian passport holder, there are not too many places that require a visa in advance and similarly for Canadian passport holders. India and Russia yes, most of the others on your list, no. For genuine tourist purposes, there has never been any issues for me getting into any country.

Have a pen on the plane so you can fill in the paperwork when the flight attendants give you the arrival card. Have the address of the place you are staying OR a likely address (e.g. likely hotel) to fill in on your forms. Know how long you can stay and don't muck around with that - be careful if you are pushing the boundaries, sometimes a month is a calendar month, sometimes it is 30 days. If you need to pay a visa-on-arrival fee, know how much it is and have the right change (in many places, this can be local currency or US dollars, some may be only one or the other, only sometimes are there credit card facilities for paying these). There are usually signs showing what you should present e.g. for departures it is usually a boarding pass, departure card and passport.

If you are not admitted to a country, the airline that flew you there is obliged to return you to the location you flew from (e.g. if they fly you from China to Japan and you are refused entry, the carrier has to return you to China).

I have never been asked for money by immigration or customs. Someone I know was recently for carrying copied DVD films and asked to pay a "fine". They paid and then asked for a receipt (which will always annoy such people, but can tip them off that you know it isn't real - "sooo, of course, you will be able to give me a receipt if I pay that".

The only place I ever get my luggage searched is Australia and the US.
posted by AnnaRat at 2:35 AM on March 29, 2012

I think China and Russia will be the two problematic places - as in you need to secure an entry visa in advance of arrival. (also perhaps Egypt and India?) this can be quite a process. It was for me entering Russia and took a few weeks - and i had to send my Passport to the Russian Embassy.

Oh USA do you need to do that ESTA thing?

USA, Japan, Thailand, Czech, Greece, Schengen Zone there is no real trick (as long as your stay is less than ~3 months. You may have to fill in a Landing / Arrival Card which will state where you are going to stay and how long you are intending to stay. It would probably be handy to keep a list of Hostels / Hotels in your arrival cities for the purpose of filling these in. I think you just need to 'intend' to stay there.

One "hack" of mine is that I ALWAYS where a button up shirt with a top pocket that fits my passport when I fly. As soon as I enter the airport my passport (and boarding pass) goes in that top pocket and then I always know where it is. Also I feel you get better treatment if you look kinda neat and tidy at airports. (A friend who had dreadlocks and was a bit of a hippy was always having run ins with Customs Officals. He also happens to be the only person I know to have been subjected to a cavity search at an airport.. you can draw your own conclusions to that. I"m just stating he had dreadlocks at the time.)
posted by mary8nne at 3:09 AM on March 29, 2012

mary8nne: "I think China and Russia will be the two problematic places"

Agreed, except I would add Czech Republic to this list, as you're a Canadian. They will charge you an entry fee (that they wouldn't charge EU or US citizens). Not sure if you have to figure that out in advance (since I'm a dual citizen, I just used my Swedish passport to get in there) or not, but worth looking into if you only have Canadian citizenship.
posted by Grither at 5:45 AM on March 29, 2012

Adding another voice to those saying Russia will be hard to arrange while you're on the road. I went recently and it took a few weeks to get a visa. The process is so complex that many people use special agencies to do it for them. I used Real Russia and was very pleased with their service. At minimum I'd suggest looking up the visa requirements and thinking about whether you'd be able to do it all while on the road.

As for general visa/border tips, a big one is: always have the name and address of the hostel you're staying at written down and kept in your hand luggage. You must fill in this information on the entry cards for most countries, and it can get hairy at the border if you don't appear to have anywhere to go. As Mary8nne suggests, if you haven't booked yet then just give the name of a hostel you 'intend' to stay with.

Always answer 'tourism' when asked why you are coming into the country. You may be asked (I never have but it's not unheard of) what you are coming to see.

Keep plane/train ticket stubs and keep a list of flight numbers with dates that you entered/left different countries, as you may also need this information for arrival/departure cards.

Have fun!!
posted by vodkaboots at 6:05 AM on March 29, 2012

One quick note about Turkey - getting the visa is no problem, but you pay your visa fee in cash at the airport (or, presumably, other border crossing) in Euros or USD (*not* Turkish lira). So, make sure you have Euros or USD to pay your visa fee with (since you will not be coming directly from either the US or the Eurozone). One would think that there must be *someplace* at the airport where you could buy USD or Euros before you have to pay for the visa, but I didn't see it. And it's not a bad idea to always have some USD or Euros on you anyway, since people seem to like them.
posted by mskyle at 6:32 AM on March 29, 2012

Firstly, each country is different and you might end up somewhere you didn't plan, so always do some research before taking any of my generalisations as absolute truth.

I slightly disagree with the suggestion that you should use forums to discover visa requirements; I always try to find the official embassy website of the country I'm going to, just in case the details have changed recently. e.g. Japanese Embassy in Canada

If this is your first time abroad, your passport is probably new, but if it's not, be aware that having a passport which is due to expire soon can be grounds for refusing you entry to many countries.

In terms of raising red flags at borders, the main thing is to be smartly dressed, polite, patient and ensure you are 100% within the law. If it's your first time somewhere non-Western, read through the entire list of items that are prohibited by customs, just in case something catches you off-guard. Fresh fruit or meat is often banned for example. You probably won't get fined if you make a minor mistake, but you don't want to be delayed and intensively searched or give someone an excuse to try to get a bribe out of you.

What are some questions from immigrations and customs officials that I need to be wary of?

As mentioned elsewhere, you need to be aware of which countries require you to have a ticket out to enter. Even if you don't know exactly how long you'll spend there, have an answer ready. e.g. "I plan to spend a few days here in the capital, then visit Temple for two days and take the train south to Port City where I'll get a boat to Nextland, so probably a week, but it might two weeks if I really enjoy myself." They may be looking for people who are planning to work illegally, so showing you have the means to support yourself can be useful. Also, have the name of your first hotel ready when you enter, even if you don't stay there in the end. Infini's advice is excellent, as is AnnaRat's on having the visa fee ready in the right currency when you arrive.

Do I need to get all my tourist visas for SE Asia, India, and the Middle East before I purchase my first ticket?

As answered elsewhere, it depends which country and how long you want to stay. Russia can be tricky. But even for countries you don't need to arrange in advance, you should be aware of (and ideally have a detailed note of) the visa application procedures and an awareness of how you will apply for a visa (location of the nearest embassy, time taken) while you're on the road.

In case I do run into trouble at the airport, what recourse do I have with the Canadian government?

Very little, unless it's a Canadian airport. You're a visitor and they're in charge. If you get thrown in jail, that's a different issue, but that's unlikely to happen unless you're very, very stupid and carry someone elses's bag through customs for them. Politeness and patience will be to your advantage.

How do I deal with potential shakedowns by corrupt cops?

On a country-by-country basis. This will probably be worst in Russia and you should read up on it in advance. Occasionally you'll have to bribe and in that case you should know the going rate and how to pass a bribe in a way that doesn't identify you as an easy mark. In general, don't give police an excuse to shake you down.

What about situations like this one (scroll down to "Act One. Chinese Checkmate.")?

Avoid situations like that by not getting drunk and assaulting people in foreign countries (and by understanding how the justice system in a country you live operates). If you have any suspicions that you might be unable to avoid headbutting locals on your travels, it's best to stay home.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 6:50 AM on March 29, 2012

The government of Canada has a travel advisory site, which is a useful starting point.

Get a bunch of passport-size pictures before you leave Canada. They can be helpful if you need to apply for a visa on arrival.

I have only been asked for a bribe by an immigration officer once, about 10 years ago in Bali. I played stupid and that was enough to discourage him.

Dress well and be reasonably well groomed going though immigration.

Dropbox is a good place to store copies of your passport, credit cards, prescriptions, etc. You can create an encrypted drive using truecrypt.
posted by quidividi at 6:55 AM on March 29, 2012

Prepare to be fingerprinted in Japan - a policy which began in 2007.
posted by fairmettle at 6:56 AM on March 29, 2012

Yes, travel light - but in my experience wheeled luggage beats a backpack in most circumstances especially if you're going anywhere hot (India, Thailand, Japan in summer, etc). I agree with not looking crusty in airports too (and be white, if possible).

Japan is probably the easiest/safest place on your list, but some things like travel are pretty expensive. If you're planning to cover some distance inside the country you'll want a rail pass which you need to arrange before you enter Japan. No visa needed for under 90 days. Japanese people will modestly claim to speak no English but most know enough to answer simple questions easily.

Thailand is very tourist-oriented and fine if you stay on the beaten track. Plan your movements properly in advance though, and pay attention to any warnings you see in guidebooks etc. No visa needed for under 30 days. If you want to stay longer and don't want to bother with a visa you can probably visit a nearby country (Malaysia?) for a few days and come back but don't do that more than once. Many Thai people will claim to speak English but usually can't to any useful level!

China needs a visa, but it's not difficult to get (I assume it's the same for a Canadian as it is for a Brit). One thing to note is that Hong Kong doesn't count as China for visa purposes so if you're planning to do China-to-HK-to-China at any point you'll need a double entry visa, not a single. Assume nobody except international hotel lobby staff speaks English (though there are exceptions).

There ends my expertise, except for Europe - but as an EU passport holder my experience isn't helpful for you. Oh, and the USA is obviously super easy but you'll want a car unless you're just in NYC/SF/similar.

On preview: You'll be fingerprinted entering the US too, if my experience is anything to go by.
posted by dickasso at 7:16 AM on March 29, 2012

Immigration and customs have improved tremendously since globalization began in earnest this century, the TSA notwithstanding. As a 'third world' passport holder who is female I've never really had a problem anywhere, except in the security theatre of the US . The rest of the world is pretty laid back if you're friendly, open, agreeable and follow all instructions with a smile and a joke (to security lady patting me down behind a curtain - "I think that beep is the under wire ;p").

I have also yet to face a single instance of facing bribery or corruption attempts (Africa, Asia, though they confiscated my pickled onions in Heathrow once) - the real trick is to not come across as a n00b in Vegas, imho and try to carry a bottle of water through security. I think that's the secret flag these days.

On the other hand, as some said above, your passport will be brand new without history of travels and returns. Its then better perhaps to try and get some of the key visas in there before leaving home thus demonstrating your intent.
posted by infini at 8:34 AM on March 29, 2012

Before I travel, I print out a sheet with some emergency-type phrases on them ("I'm Canadian and need to find the embassy." "Where is the hospital?" -- things like that).

I keep the sheet on me and accessible while I'm traveling, in case something goes wrong. It never has, and I've never needed them, but I still feel more comfortable.

Also, keep a money belt under your clothes with your important stuff in it, and then carry a wallet with next to nothing in it. If you get robbed, it won't cost you more than a wallet.

When dealing with customs, just be calm and answer everything honestly and completely.

Fortunately, tourism is a major source of income for most of these countries, so you're unlikely to encounter serious problems.
posted by coolguymichael at 8:35 AM on March 29, 2012

One suggestion I have is to register with Canadian embassies in the countries you're visiting. If a natural disaster hits, the government doesn't know you're there unless you're registered. Not a big deal in the US or Western Europe, but one never knows in some other countries.

For getting visas, don't go digging around forums, just go straight to the embassy websites. If you plan on being in Ottawa at any point, the Russian and Chinese embassies are both located pretty centrally. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to apply for both of them since you're going to have to submit your passport each time and if you're getting multiple visas you need to factor that into your timeline.

And echoing others: Pack light!!! Nothing can make your day worse than being forced to lug around more luggage than you need.
posted by fso at 11:12 AM on March 29, 2012

I'd also add that Canada and Australia have an arrangement in place where citizens of one country will be provided with assistance at the embassy or high commission of the other if only one country has representation in that country. There are Canadian embassies or high commissions in all the countries on your list, but if you decide to change it up and go somewhere else where we don't have a mission but Australia does, you can seek assistance there if you need help. Just good to know.
posted by fso at 11:14 AM on March 29, 2012

Do I need to get all my tourist visas for SE Asia, India, and the Middle East before I purchase my first ticket?

I don't know, do you? This is the first step in planning your itinerary.

Time-saving travel "hacks" for quickening the visa approval process are also greatly appreciated.

Looking up requirements for the countries you are going to ahead of time.

On my way back from Skopje to Thessaloniki, I ran into some poor Canadians on the train who got stopped at the border on the morning train from Greece because they didn't have a visa because they didn't know they needed one, so they couldn't be let into the country. Instead they were detained at the border crossing and had to wait for the next train back to Greece, which didn't come until the evening. Don't be them.

As a general piece of travel advice, do not ever follow locals who chat you up and invite you to a bar. Ever. Exchange pleasantries and go on your way.
posted by deanc at 11:31 AM on March 29, 2012

Oh USA do you need to do that ESTA thing?

Nope. Canada doesn't participate in the Visa Waiver Program; it's citizens of countries who do are the ones to need to fill out the ESTA. Canadian citizens need simply present a Canadian passport to enter the US.

You'll be fingerprinted entering the US too, if my experience is anything to go by.

You will also not be fingerprinted upon entering as most Canadians visit are exempt from US-VISIT.

And on that topic, if you are flying to the US from a major Canadian airport (Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto Pearson, Vancouver or Winnipeg), be prepared for preclearance at your Canadian airport, i.e. you will clear US customs and immigration in Canada and once you land in the US you are free to go. You don't have to do anything special, just don't cut it super close when you leave Canada so you have time to clear this.

Enjoy! This sounds like a really fun trip.
posted by andrewesque at 1:57 PM on March 29, 2012

One important note about Russia that I didn't see mentioned:

You definitely need a visa to enter prior to arrival AND you need someone to sponsor you even just for a visit. The sponsor is an approved travel hotel/hostel/travel agency.

See here for more detail: http://www.russianembassy.org/Embassy_eng/Consulate/tourist_visa.html
posted by fuzzysoft at 4:11 PM on March 29, 2012

Something that is really easy to do but makes a big difference to your ease of international travel:

Memorize your passport number.

That's all.

You will have to fill it out over and over again on visa paperwork and customs/immigration paperwork, and during hotel bookings and registrations, sometimes when booking flights, and god knows when else. It's so much easier not to have to dig through your bag for it each time. (Obviously you'll need to have it to present at the border, but you usually fill out the forms on the plane or in the queue, not at the desk.) Also, it might come in handy if you have to call the embassy for any reason, or if you lose your passport or have it stolen.
posted by lollusc at 4:44 PM on March 29, 2012

Sounds like a great trip!

Any advice I could offer about specific locations is likely to be out of date, but there is one general thing to keep in mind: dealing with visa paperwork is a pain in the neck while you're at home, but it's orders of magnitude worse when you're on the road. Not only will waiting in line at a foreign embassy in a foreign country turn into a huge time sink, but it will in general be much harder to get anything done. In many cases, in order to apply for a visa you have to either hand over your passport or jump through exceptional hoops; spending a week in big-city Russia while your passport is being held by a foreign embassy is a really bad idea.

I love traveling flexibly with no specific destination or plan. (I probably take that approach to extremes that most would consider dangerous.) But, it's easy to underestimate how annoying dealing with visas while on the road can be. It's well worth sacrificing some flexibility in order to avoid having to do that. Even if, at the end of the day, it means spending a little more or less time in a place than one might have wished.

Finally, when it comes to places that have strict "ticket-out" rules, having a printed international bus or train schedule and cash on hand is often enough to convince border guards that you're not a would-be immigrant or asylum seeker. Especially if you're from a rich country like Canada, and even more so if you happen to appear to be ethnically Western European. This works best in places where crossing borders by land is possible, of course. Even if you're going to buy a plane ticket later, claiming that you'll stay at one specific hotel address and then will buy a train ticket to some other country in maximum-tourist-visa-period-minus-five-days is pretty likely to work. (The only major exception I know of is Russia, where the itinerary you make up when entering needs to be pretty close to what's printed on your visa support letter. Nobody will care if you radically change your plans afterward, provided you don't over-stay the visa.)

Otherwise, have fun! Foreign cops and border guards aren't nearly as scary as people make out, assuming you aren't getting involved in local politics, doing illegal things, or hanging out with people who are doing illegal things. Even in places where the cops are no friend to the locals, rich tourists are treated well. Even if they happen to be penniless, filthy backpackers. On that count, do try your best to avoid doing illegal things abroad. (There are plenty of opportunities to try new and interesting drugs in your own country where you know the laws and speak the same language as your attorney. Don't take silly risks in foreign places, no matter how cute the drug dealer may be.)
posted by eotvos at 4:46 PM on March 29, 2012

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