Your travel is confirmed – but you won’t be going anywhere unless you have the right visa. Tom Otley provides a guide to getting it sorted
Obtaining visas is a fact of life for business travellers. Whether we go abroad for a simple one-day meeting or more prolonged periods, the need for both business and work visas seems to be increasing – and, with them, the uncertainty over the requirements necessary for getting them.
More visas (from the Latin charta visa, meaning “paper which has been seen”) are as a result of two things – first, we are visiting a wider range of countries than ever before and, second, introducing visa requirements makes money for developing countries.
Andrew Wrensch, head of marketing for Visa Swift says, “Visas are generally required for up-and-coming countries such as the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, China], because of their natural resources. These resources create business opportunities, people have to travel there to take advantage of them, and so for those countries it represents an income opportunity. They know what they’ve got and they charge people to go there and do business.”
Travel management consultancy ATPI has its own in-house visa service. Nikki Regan, general operations manager of its London office, points out that visas are there to “limit any affect business travel or work permits has on the domestic internal workforce so it is not damaged by foreign visits”.
She says that because ATPI has had a client base in oil and gas exploration, it has a long history of dealing with visas, and while her organisation has not seen a particular increase in the number of requirements, they are often changing.
This is echoed by Edward Carnell, Visa Swift’s managing director.
“The landscape changes all the time,” he says. “One country might one day say: ‘We can’t be bothered with this anymore and we’ll do it on arrival or have a visa waiver.’ Another might suddenly put those barriers back up. Typically, you’ll find the country discovers natural resources and introduces extra barriers to gain revenue. It can also be driven by political leadership.”
Tourist visas are generally cheaper than business ones, both to encourage people to visit the destination and spend money in the local economy, and also because, just as with business class fares, there’s a perception that corporate travellers have the deeper pockets of their employers so can afford to pay more.
It might also be the case that since the rewards for companies may be commensurately higher, they should pay more to gain access to the country.
While a passport is proof of identity, a visa has a different purpose.
“A visa is needed to learn more about a person,” Wrensch says. “Whether they have enough funds to support themselves while in the country, for instance, and to make sure they leave. That’s why many business visas require a certification of employment, or a letter from an employer saying why you are required to visit, or from the company you are visiting to state the reason for your visit.”
As business travellers know, some countries are more difficult to get visas for than others.
Wrensch regards Pakistan as problematical, for example, since an application can take up to ten working days to be processed, and there may often be no indication as to when it will be granted.
FOLLOW THE RULES
It’s also the case that, while the process for obtaining visas can be onerous, travellers themselves often make it more difficult. All visa companies emphasise the importance of two considerations – leaving enough time and reading the instructions carefully.
“People sometimes don’t think about the visa until the last moment, but they need to apply in plenty of time,” Regan says. “We can offer a pre-check, so they can scan the documents and send them over to us before posting, and we can check them so we don’t have the problem of finding there’s something that might cause a delay.”
All visa specialists and departments have tales of travellers who felt that certain conditions shouldn’t apply to them, from providing biometric information to disclosing financial details, but unless you have a hotline to the president of the country, you will have to comply.
They also caution against entering on a tourist visa, which generally has lower entry requirements than a business visa. Stating the obvious: you might get away with it, but you might not, and that could lead to a heavy fine or even imprisonment.
“We would always advise our travellers to book something flexible until they’ve got the visa in their hands,” Regan says. “That way it can be cancelled if the visa doesn’t come through. If it does come through they could still cancel the ticket and book something less flexible, but at a better price.”
ATPI claims that its in-house service is an advantage in such cases, since the visa department has access to the travel booking. “If our passport department gets advice that the visa is going to be delayed, we can go into the Galileo booking and see if that’s possible or not,” Regan says.
On the matter of photographs, Regan says that it’s a good idea to have some ready for applications. These should be in different sizes, since the standard passport-sized photo (45mm x 35mm) will sometimes have to be supplemented by larger ones – for example, 50mm x 50mm for Indian visas.
Visa Swift’s Carnell also advises getting a visa before you travel, even if it is available on arrival.
“One country we know where you can apply when you arrive, they only take payment in US dollars. But if your flight arrives late, the shops are shut and you don’t have the US dollars, what then? And if you arrive at the same time as other international flights, how long will it take you to get through passport control if you have to go through that process? It might take three or four hours.”
THE VIP TREATMENT
The solution for some travellers is to throw money at the problem by employing an agency to do the heavy lifting on the application.
Depending on how much you pay, this can remove a lot of legwork, although note that while companies can collect the passport for you, if you have to apply in person or have an interview, there’s no way to avoid that.
Typically, a visa company will check the documents you are sending over to ensure they aren’t rejected or you haven’t missed out something vital, and will keep you updated by email or text on how your application is processing.
In addition, many have VIP services offering everything from photo resizing and photocopying of documents, to rapid collection and drop-off within Zone 1 in London and delivery to the rest of the UK by noon the next day.
The companies can also “go bespoke”. Wrensch says: “If you travel frequently, you should have a second passport. If you’re away travelling but you’ve got a good relationship with a visa service such as ourselves, if we hold the second passport it can make it much quicker to process applications.”
He adds: “If you have a list of top destinations you are travelling to, we can get you to pre-sign forms and fill them out on your behalf. Or if you are away, we can courier documents to you if we hold the second passport. Also, if you are abroad and your passport is stolen, we can next-day courier [your spare one] so you can get home without any problems.”
15 TOP TIPS
- Check the country requirements as soon as your travel is confirmed
- Apply in good time
- Carefully read the instructions
- Provide the right documentation
- Have bank statements for proof of income
- Have an employer’s letter ready
- Print invitation from host company
- Keep a list of countries you’ve previously visited
- Collate utility bills for proof of residence
- Have medical certificates to hand (eg, yellow fever)
- Keep your signature within the box on forms
- Enclose the right number of correctly sized photos
- Get it before you go, even if you can apply on arrival
- Ensure there are two clear pages in your passport
- Check it has at least six months’ validity
EXPENSIVE VISA DESTINATIONS
- Nigeria £600 (Temporary work permit/Subject to Regulation visa)
- Pakistan £365 (Business one-year)
- Russia £350 (Business one-year)
- India £285 (Business two-year)
- China £260 (Business one-year)
- DR Congo £220 (Business six months, multiple entry)
LENGTHY PROCESSING TIMES
- Angola 15 working days
- Djibouti 15 working days
- Algeria 15 working days (Business)
- Uzbekistan 15 working days (Tourist)
- DR Congo 12-15 working days
- Togo 10-15 working days
- Azerbaijan 12 working days (Business without a telex invite)
- Canada 12 working days
- Pakistan 10 working days
- Mali 10 working days