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The 4 Basic Types of Travel Visas: Everything You Need To Know

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Brian Graham
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Brian Graham

Former Content Contributor

10 Published Articles

Countries Visited: U.S. States Visited:

After leveraging employee travel benefits from a previous corporate job, Brian set sail with his buddy around the world and has become a seasoned traveler who maximizes points and miles wherever possi...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury


38 Published Articles 3339 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 47U.S. States Visited: 28

With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now editor-in-chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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You’ve likely heard of a travel visa before, but if you’re like most people, the phrase either overwhelmed or confused you! Who wants to think about government requirements when planning a well-deserved vacation anyway?

Then again, perhaps you haven’t heard it referred to as a “travel visa” because you’ve heard about 1 of the 2 main overall types of visas or 1 of the 4 sub-types.

We know this all sounds baffling, but it does not have to be!

In this series of articles, we’ll help you learn everything you need to know about travel visa requirements and how to get them sorted out for your upcoming trips!

A Series on Passport Visas: What ARE Visas Anyway? Do I Need a Visa?

Once you have obtained your very first passport (or simply renewed an old one), you need to first understand “how it all works” when talking about traveling.

As much as we would like the world to be free, most of us still have to ask permission to travel around and visit countries other than our own. This idea will probably be around for a while, so it is best to understand it now.

Unfortunately, when we talk about the concept known as “visas,” we don’t mean our favorite credit card processing kind…this is the travel visa!

Whether you are a citizen of the U.S. or any other country, visas are universal. However, the requirements do vary by country, and since each visa represents a relationship between countries, they are unique to each case.

Your Visa Status Determines Your Ability To Travel

Because this is such an important part of travel that many people find hard to understand or annoying to deal with, we decided to do a series of posts on the visa itself.

Knowing the requirements is critical since you will not be able to travel without the proper visa status.

We will first explain the general aspects and different types of visas in this article and then describe each part of the different visas in upcoming articles until we have covered everything!

Equipped with this knowledge, you’ll be fully prepared for your trip and have all the information you need. This will ensure that you can continue using your credit cards to earn points and begin deciding where you want to redeem them for travel next!

Make sure to research travel visas when planning your next trip; it may save you lots of heartache and money!

Travel Visa Article Series:

  • Part 1: The 4 Basic Types of Travel Visas: Everything You Need To Know (this article)
  • Part 2: Tourist Visas TO other countries FROM the U.S. (general info)
  • Part 2a: Tourist Visas to [Specific Country] FROM the U.S.
  • Part 3: Tourist Visas FROM other countries TO the U.S.
  • Part 4: U.S. Green Cards, Immigration, and How to Get Your Fiancé or Spouse into the Country
  • Part 5: Student Visas and Studying Abroad
  • Part 6: Working Abroad and Visa Requirements To/From the USA

What are The Different Types of Visas That Exist?

As you have seen, the visa is a travel “document” required to get both into and out of a country. These days, you simply get your passport stamped with a visa rather than getting a physical document, but sometimes you will see both.

All visas go hand in hand with your passport; you can think of your passport as your “visa holder.”

There are 2 over-arching categories of visas that apply to any country:

  • Non-immigrant visas (meaning you do not become a citizen of that country)
  • Immigrant visas (you do become a citizen of that country)

The 4 Types of Travel Visa

However, these 2 overall categories can be best discussed as 4 main sub-types of visa:


These 4 sub-types apply to every country in the world, though the requirements (or lack thereof) can vary widely, especially depending on which country you’re coming from.

Remember: Your travel may require pre-planning and approval from another government, so before you go booking any crazy trips and after you’ve gotten your first passport (or get your old one renewed), you need to review the visa information for your destination!

This usually only takes a few minutes, but it can save you a lifetime of stress when you get closer to your trip.

In the U.S., a few examples of countries requiring a pre-approved visa include India, China, most African countries, and Russia.

There are lots of options, but you’ll likely find a tourist visa the easiest to obtain unless you’d like to stay somewhere for an extended period of time.

An immigration visa is the hardest to get, and most people will be unable to obtain this type of visa during their lifetime.

Bottom Line:  You may be tempted to just book trips and go, but when you get the travel itch, make sure to take a few minutes to research visa requirements first!

Woman looking at map
Be sure to research the visa requirements of any trips you are planning. Image Credit: baranq via Shutterstock

Type #1 – Tourist Visa Requirements: The Main Concern of Points Travelers

First, we’ll start with the tourist visa (also known as a visitor visa). This is probably the most important type for readers here on because it’s the visa that allows us to use all those awesome points we’ve obtained!

When talking about travel visas, it’s important to first understand where you are coming from, what your citizenship status is (which country you have your passport from), and where you plan on going.

For the majority of our readers, the place you’re coming from and your citizenship status will both be the U.S., but where you are going can obviously vary widely.

However, some of you may be coming from one country and traveling to another while holding citizenship in a third!

In this case, you must be careful to check travel requirements for your specific situation; otherwise, you could end up finding the wrong information and being unable to travel.

Note: A tourist visa is a non-immigrant visa.

Tourist Visas for U.S. Passport Holders

The good news for most of you is this: when traveling on a U.S. passport, you will not need a visa to visit 143 different countries and territories of the world.

Simply book travel to the desired country and show up on their doorstep (also known as Customs and Border Protection). They’ll probably ask you a couple of questions about your purpose of visit and your return date.

When traveling with a U.S. passport, Americans will need to apply for a tourist visa when visiting 37 countries. 10 of these countries issue e-visas where an application can be made online, while with the other 27 countries, a visit to an application center is usually required.

Visa on Arrival

43 countries require a visa on arrival. This means that once you land, you will speak with a border agent who will process a visa on-site.

For these places, it may not be as smooth and easy as visiting Canada, the Bahamas, or most European countries, where U.S. citizens can quickly walk through the customs line and obtain their stamp.

If you’re the efficient type, even this relatively simple process can go more quickly if your destination country participates in the Global Entry Program!

Bottom Line:  Americans can travel to 88% of the world with little to no up-front work (186 countries). However, there are 196 countries (not including territories), so do your research before you go to see what requirements you’ll meet at CBP!

Tourist Visas TO the U.S.

Unfortunately, this category isn’t quite as simple. While we do have pretty good reciprocal agreements with many countries, citizens from some countries cannot simply travel to the U.S. without prior permission.

To travel to the U.S., visitors need to apply and be approved by the U.S. Department of State. Visa requirements differ per country.

You Can Complete Your Visa Application Online

Many can utilize the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, in order to complete their visa application online.

According to the ESTA website, there are currently 40 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows people from another country to visit the U.S. without a pre-authorized visa.

The following countries are included in this program, which allows travel for up to 90 days without obtaining any other type of visa:


Note: foreign nationals who are also nationals of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Syria are not eligible for the VWP.

*Taiwan’s status as a country is still in dispute by China and other countries, but the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation.

**UK citizens must permanently reside in the UK, including England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.

In order to obtain this visa, visitors must apply for ESTA and be approved. If you are not a citizen of these countries or were not approved in ESTA, you must apply for a B-2 tourist visa.

The VWP program gives foreign nationals access to the U.S. (multiple visits) for up to 2 years.

There are a couple of additional ways to visit the U.S., including through a student visa or a work visa, which we will be discussing shortly.

Bottom Line:  Traveling to the U.S. requires some up-front work, whether that is applying in ESTA or researching how to submit a B-2 tourist visa application.

Couple taking selfie
If you’re looking to vacation abroad, you should research the specific tourist visa requirements of the location(s) you are visiting. Image Credit: oneinchpunch via Shutterstock

Type #2 – Immigration Visa Requirements: Obtaining Permanent Residence in the U.S.

An immigration visa is one that authorizes a person to permanently reside in a country. This is closely related to the naturalization and citizenship process, though immigration does not necessarily suggest citizenship.

If you’ve heard someone mention the term “Green Card,” they were actually talking about the immigration type of visa. Green Cards do not, however, simply grant citizenship.

What a Green Card will do is allow the holder to both live and work in the U.S., as this card is the path to obtaining citizenship.

The citizenship process, also known as naturalization, is the final step in becoming a full citizen of the U.S. Green Card holders must wait five years before applying for citizenship.

Full rights to all laws (including being subject to them) are granted upon naturalization, which allows the bearer to travel as a U.S. citizen would to all other various countries.

There are multiple paths to getting an immigrant visa and several different ways in which to obtain it:

  • Through family
  • Through employment
  • Through investment
  • Through the diversity lottery
  • Through refugee or asylum status
  • Through “The Registry”

Type #3 – Student Visa Requirements: Get Your Education Abroad

The “Study Abroad” visa! If only we all were able to do this. A student visa is obtained when you are visiting a country for the purpose of an educational experience.

While many would agree that all travel, regardless of reason, ends up being an educational experience, travel here refers to trips in which you will be attending classes or studying particular subjects.

These visas apply to exchange students of just a few weeks or those staying a year or more. Requirements vary per visa and per country…as per usual!

Note: A student visa is also a non-immigrant visa.

U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad

For U.S. citizens wanting to study elsewhere, you have lots of options. While there is not a full list put together, you will likely have the best luck finding a place to study abroad by researching through a university. is a great resource to help you in this regard.

Your ability to study abroad will be limited to the laws of the country you are trying to study in. Note that almost 60% of Americans who study abroad do so in Europe or Asia, and other countries are starting to become more popular.

Each year, there are over 300,000 students that study abroad from the U.S. (approximately 1.5% of students). These figures contrast starkly with a country like Germany, where around 30% of their students study abroad.

Foreign Citizens Studying in the U.S.

Any foreign national studying in the U.S. will need a U.S. Student Visa, which will fall under the letters F and M.

Also included in this category are visas for academics and education professionals going abroad for particular work studies or trips.

These types of visas fall under the letter J, which might also be considered a work visa.

Over 1 million students from abroad studied in the U.S. in the 2022-2023 school year.

Interested in studying abroad? No matter where you go, you will need to obtain a student visa to authorize you to travel and study. Image Credit: Kyle Glenn via Unsplash

Type #4 – Work Visa Requirements: Do Your Business Abroad

The fourth and final type of visa is the strictest and most difficult to obtain in any country: the work visa.

This is for a very simple reason: governments want economic activity in their country to be driven by their own citizens.

Overall, the U.S. is particularly stern on these requirements. Many different types of work visas exist, and they’re all given a not-very-aptly-named letter:

  • Temporary Employment Visas:
    • H
    • L
    • O
    • P
    • Q
  • Exchange Visitor Visa: J
  • Media Visa: I
  • Trade Treaty and Investor Visa: E
  • NAFTA Professional Worker Visa: TN/TD

Each country wants to ensure that its own citizens have priority for the jobs available in that country. However, if you have your own business, it could possibly be easier to obtain one of these coveted visas.

Note: Work visas can be either immigrant or non-immigrant in nature.

For U.S. citizens looking to work abroad, you’ll need to research each location’s requirements before you go.

There will be more details on work visas in our upcoming piece. Until then, you can check out more work visa requirements on the U.S. State Department website. Here, you’ll find information for foreign nationals trying to get into the U.S. as well as Americans going abroad.

Woman working on laptop at beach
Research your destination to understand the working visa requirements before traveling. Image Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds via Shutterstock

Change or Adjustment of Status: Going From 1 Visa to Another

It is possible that your status changes while you’re in the country, and you may need to update your visa. This can also be a way to extend your stay in the country if you are required to leave soon.

Let’s say you’re on a temporary work visa but then decide you want to stay longer. You would likely have to apply for a non-immigrant work visa to allow you to stay in the country for a bit more time.

Alternatively, you could be working already but then begin dating someone you are going to marry. In this case, you’d get your status changed to a fiancé or spouse visa.

Perhaps you’re a student studying abroad who is offered an excellent opportunity to work because of your special skills.

You could then switch to a work visa, which would allow you to work and earn money while still continuing to study if desired. On a student visa alone, you aren’t allowed to work unless your job is on the campus at which you are studying.

When Do I Need to Worry About Getting a Visa?

Unless you are familiar with the visa requirements of the country you’re planning to visit, you should always do a quick search on whether or not a visa is required. This is much easier in the age of the internet and usually takes no more than five minutes of research.

Here’s a great site that covers every country’s visa requirements in one list (both business and personal, but does not cover study abroad for student visas (which require special approval).

In general, the easiest countries for U.S. citizens to visit include Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Caribbean countries (excluding Cuba), and most European countries.

Asia is a mixed bag, with some countries requiring prior authorization (such as India and Russia), some requiring an on-site application (such as Cambodia), and others allowing a generous and easy entry (such as Japan).

Africa, the Middle East, and South America make up the majority of locations that require U.S. citizens to obtain prior authorization on a visa.

Use the above information as a rule of thumb, and be sure to check specifics ahead of time. If you’re new to traveling, the easiest places to start are Canada, Mexico, and Europe due to their relaxed visitor agreements and low, competitive prices on flights.

Of course, some of you can even drive to Canada and Mexico on a single tank of gas! Just be sure to remember your passport! You’ll still need it when crossing the border unless you have a NEXUS card or Passport Card, which acts as a visa itself.

Bottom Line:  To be safe, you should always research your destinations’ visa requirements. You can save lots of trouble with a few minutes of research on the internet. For more info, check out our article: Do I Need a Visa? 100+ Countries with Tourist Visa Requirements for U.S. Citizens

10 Top Countries That Require Visas From the U.S.

Here is a list of very popular destinations that require pre-approval for travel from the U.S.:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Australia
  4. Vietnam
  5. Saudi Arabia
  6. Singapore
  7. Russia
  8. Brazil
  9. Venezuela
  10. Nigeria

There are more countries not listed here, but the listed ones are popular travel spots. In the upcoming series, we will release guides to getting visas for these specific countries.

Other Special Notes: Passport Validity and Transit Visas

There is a caveat to the “you don’t need a visa to travel to…” rule. Regardless of pre-authorized visa requirements, most countries require you to have at least six months of validity left on your passport before entering the country.

Though this may seem random, the rule exists to ensure you don’t get stuck in a country with an expired passport, which could end up a much, much worse situation than you ever want to deal with!

So, be sure to keep your passport validity up to date. Check out our guide to renewing your passport for more info.

Additionally, while many countries require a visa to be obtained prior to landing, some of these countries have special exceptions for short, transiting trips.

For instance, China now allows you to transit through for 72 hours as long as you have met certain requirements. You can look up these for any country by searching “[destination] transit visa rules” on Google for more info.

Usually, these rules depend on where you are traveling, so contacting the U.S. embassy at your destination is the best choice.

Airplane in sky
Transit visas allow short trips to many restricted countries where you would otherwise have to obtain a pre-approved travel visa. This is a great way to get around the long visa process! Image Credit: Artturi Jalli via Unsplash

Visa Centers and Third-party Visa Services

Even once you know the process, getting your visa can be stressful. If you’re the type who just doesn’t want to think about it, you can hire a business that specializes in this type of thing.

Many visa application and expediting companies exist to help you secure your visa before you travel. They can also help answer any questions and assist with preparing anything you’ll need throughout the process.

Uncertain if you can work while you’re in the other country? Will you be able to take some classes? How long can you stay?

If you don’t know the answers and don’t want to research, professional visa services can help make your trip a little more peaceful.

Visa Application Fees: How Much and How To Apply

As discussed previously, you should try to apply for your visa online first since most places allow this. Simply do a Google search for “[destination] visa requirements for Americans,” and you’ll likely find something.

Typically, these requirements and applications are posted on the government websites of the target vacation (or other) spots.

For any country in which the U.S. doesn’t have a direct agreement, you will have to pay visa fees. This includes on-site visas and other pre-approved visa countries.

Fees can range anywhere from $20-$200 or more, and it depends on the length of the visa you purchase.

Do your research and determine what the best value is for you so you don’t pay too much in visa fees.

Visa Conclusions: Do Your Research or Be Turned Away

There is much more to say about visas, which you will learn as this series continues. For now, be sure to do your research and get authorized beforehand if necessary.

Which type of visa do you need? Probably 1 of the 4 main types: tourist, immigration, student, or work.

U.S. citizens can visit 143 countries and territories without a pre-approved visa. Each of these is good for a different length of stay, although 90 days is one of the most common lengths.

Some places like India require a pre-approved visa that can take months to process, so start early!

What happens if you don’t get your pre-authorization? Well, if the airline doesn’t catch it, then you will simply be stopped while going through customs in the country you are visiting.

You will not be allowed to enter and instead will be stuck in customs to catch the next flight back out of that country.

Bottom Line: Don’t be turned away at the door. Research and get your visas before you travel!

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The Four Basic Types of Travel Visas

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a travel visa?

A travel visa is a document that authorizes you to travel to another country besides the one you are a citizen of.

Why do we need a travel visa?

Visas were created as a way to protect the borders of countries and keep citizens safe. As the world becomes safer, visa agreements become more common, allowing people to visit countries of the world with little up-front work.

How do you travel on a visa?

For U.S. Citizens, the process is pretty simple in most cases. You can show up in another country and enter through the Customs area. The Border Patrol agent will stamp your passport with your travel visa!

However, for some other countries and those visiting the U.S., you must submit a visa application to the State Department. This can sometimes be done online, like through the U.S. ESTA system (for non-U.S. citizen visitors).

Can you travel without a visa? When is a travel visa required?

You cannot technically travel to any other country without a visa. However, in many countries, the governments have already negotiated visas behind the scenes, allowing you to obtain a travel visa on the spot.

Americans can travel to 186 countries and territories around the world with little to no up-front work and obtain a visa upon landing!

How do you apply for a travel visa?

Visa applications can be simple in some cases and time-consuming and cumbersome in others. You can often apply for a visa to your desired country online through an electronic system.

Travelers to the U.S. can use the ESTA system, which allows them to obtain a 90-day U.S. travel visa for up to 2 years.

Other visas, however, require finding and printing forms and sending them in the mail for approval. Then, you must wait for that approval or denial, which can take weeks or even months.

You will need to research your particular situation, as there are too many to list here.

Which countries require a travel visa?

All countries require a travel visa, although the requirements differ between different countries. Depending on your citizenship and where you are traveling, you could obtain an on-site visa, or you may have to apply far ahead of time.

US Citizens can travel to 186 countries and territories without much or any up-front work, although you technically still obtain visas when you arrive.

Who issues travel visas?

Each country’s government is responsible for issuing travel visas. In the U.S., the Department of State regulates and issues travel visas.

Why would a travel visa be denied?

While denial is not common, it happens. If you have certain criminal background status or, in some cases, even heritage, you may be denied. Research reasons for denial for each country before applying.

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About Brian Graham

Brian’s first ever airplane ride was in a private turbo-prop jet. He was merely an intern boy trying to make a good impression, but it turns out the plane made an impression on him.

It wasn’t until Brian relocated to Dallas, TX, and moved in with an American Airlines employee that he truly discovered how incredible travel could be.

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