Image source: Flickr - Daimon Eklund
If you're planning an international trip, you must be aware that you will need to have a passport and depending on your destination, you'll maybe need a visa too. But I'll go through both of these documents to help you understand how to use and get both of them, and when are they necessary.
I want to note that while this information will be mostly focused towards US citizens, I will mention other international samples that might be relevant.
The history of passports is actually much older than you might think. One of the earliest samples of a passport is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, stating that Nehemiah had the king's permission to travel to Judea with safe passage. Later, in the medieval Islamic Caliphate, a form of passport was the bara'a, which was actually a receipt for taxes paid. Only citizens who paid their taxes were permitted to travel to different regions of the Caliphate.
The word passport comes from a medieval document that was required to pass through the gate (porte) of the city wall or to pass through a territory.
These days, though, a passport is required for all international travel. If you're a US Citizen, you can travel all around the United States and its territories without a passport, but once you decide to cross international borders (like going to Mexico), a passport will be required.
Certain international countries create free trade/movement regions, which allows citizens of the countries in each region to cross borders with just an ID. Among these regions are Mercosur in South America, Schengen in Europe, and the East African Community in Africa, including many others.
Passports are the only universally accepted identification, so having a passport is crucial for international travel. Equally, a passport is crucial to be able to depart the international destination and re-enter your country of origin. It is a form of keeping an accurate track of where you've been.
Since July 2008 the U.S. State Department began producing two types of Passports: Passport Book and Passport Card. Passport Cards are not valid for international air travel but may be used for land and sea travel between the US, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and The Caribbean. The Passport Book is valid for any type of international travel.
How To Apply For A US Passport
If you are applying for your first US Passport, then you must apply in person at any regional passport agency or other facility that accepts passports applications (like post offices and courthouses).
You will need to fill out the DS-11 form (available online), provide proof of US citizenship, proof of identity with a drivers license or government ID, two 2x2 passport photos, and your social security number.
You can apply or renew by mail if you've had a passport in the past 15 years and were 16 years or more when the passport was issued. You will need to submit your previous passport by mail.
Make sure you start the process at least 2 to 3 months in advance of your planned trip, as the average processing time takes six weeks.
Different to passports, visas vary dramatically depending on the type of passport you carry and the country you're visiting. A visa is a document indicating that a person is authorized to enter the country for a specific period of time. These documents are often in the form of stamps or stickers placed in your passport. For example, someone traveling to Russia with a US passport will need to get a visa, but someone traveling to Russia with a Brazilian Passport will not need it.
There are more than a dozen types of visas but they can be generally classified as immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas. Non-immigrant visas are usually for tourist and business visitors.
When required, the country issuing the visa typically attaches various conditions to the visa, such as the time when the visa is valid, the period of time that the person may stay in the country, whether the visa is valid for more than one visit, and more. For example, my Brazilian Visa (with a US passport) is valid for 10 years, allowing me to stay for up to 90 days, and allows me to travel multiple times to the country within those 10 years.
How To Apply For A Visa
Many countries like Tunisia, Peru, Thailand, most European Countries, and many others, will let you enter visa free with just a valid passport and the return flight information. They usually let you stay between 30 to 90 days (With a US Passport. Other passport holders may need to get a visa to enter these countries).
Some countries, such as Egypt and Kenya, will allow you to enter with a visa on arrival that you pay on arrival at the airport or when crossing the land border.
Other countries, like Russia and Kazakhstan, will require you to obtain a visa before departing the US or your country of residence. In these cases, you need to head to your nearest embassy or consulate of the destination country and apply there.
Visa requirements change constantly, but to know the current requirements, check the US Department of State Travel Page for all the entry and exit requirements. Other passport holders can check their own government's immigration or travel page for these details.
Ready to take that international trip?