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How to: Travel on a Third-World Passport

Insider Guides
by Tiara Shafiq Mar 4, 2011
In response to our call for submissions on getting visas, Tiara the Merch Girl writes in to remind us that the process is a much bigger pain in the ass for some people than for others.

I’VE BEEN TRAVELING ever since I was a baby (my first flight was at about 40 days old), but being on a “high risk” Bangladesh passport means I often have to fill out extensive visa applications months in advance of my trips.

Sites like Matador and TV shows like The Amazing Race fill me with immense wanderlust, but I often feel they ignore the harsh realities of being on a third-world (and for some reason often green?) passport — the pains of not being able to travel on a whim, being subjected to extra-stringent investigations, sometimes not even being able to travel to certain countries or participate in certain events.

Fortunately, there are ways to make travel possible on highly complicated passports — the main trick lies in being as prepared as possible and getting your paperwork in order.

Here are some tips I’ve found that have made getting visas a lot easier:

1. Prepare a list of every international trip taken in the last 10 years; update regularly.

This is necessary for visa applications to places like the UK, and if you’re planning on permanent residency or citizenship anywhere it also tends to be a core requirement. Often this means poring through pages of passport stamps and visas, but once you have a starter list upkeep will be a lot easier.

Include dates (departure and return), country, and reasons for travel — dates need not be exact, but try to come as close as possible. If you’re a migrant like me, you may have multiple countries that count as “local” or “home”; on the safe side, count every trip that involves a border crossing.

2. Create a list of the official names, dates of birth, and locations of your parents, partners, and siblings.

Another common visa requirement. If any of your immediate family are deceased, note that in the list too. Even if you’re long past underage and have been living independently for a while, many embassies are still interested in your parental information.

Also take note that you may need to include significant others if you’re legally married or count as a civil union or “De Facto” (depending on your local laws).

3. Triple-check information for your passport country and visas at least three months in advance.

A lot of information on travel sites about visas — especially in countries where you’re a recent migrant — tend to be geared towards people with first-world passports, where visa requirements are minimal.

Often, our passports are classed as “high risk,” which means more stringent requirements and checks and longer processing. Three months is a good length of time to give, even if it’s not specifically stated that you apply this early.

4. Check the timing of your visa applications carefully, especially when considering a multi-country trip.

Some time ago, I was on a round-the-world trip that involved obtaining visas for the Schengen countries, Switzerland (not on the Schengen system), and Japan. The Schengens and Switzerland required quite a bit of lead time, but Japan issued visas within 24 hours that were valid immediately.

However, Japanese visas are valid for entry for a relatively short amount of time, and I wasn’t going to be there till a third of the way through my trip. I had to make sure I received my Japan visa just in time so I could arrive in country with the visa still being valid.

5. Consider having an extra $1,000 or so in your bank account before you apply for a visa.

One of the main reasons many countries are so harsh on people with passports like ours is because they assume we want to immigrate illegally and find illicit jobs. Therefore, a common requirement for visas is to demonstrate you are “financially able.”

What I’ve done in the past for trips where I needed to get the visa way in advance and hadn’t saved up my travel cash yet was to have a friend loan me money through a bank transfer. Then I printed and sent those bank statements to the visa office.

You may also need to provide a financial sponsor — I’ve had my parents write letters and provide bank statements in support, even though they didn’t necessarily fund my trip.

6. Be aware that a lot of visa options, such as working holiday visas, may not be open to you.

Schemes like working holidays are set up by special agreement between countries, and unfortunately countries like ours don’t tend to figure in such agreements very often.

Things change with time, and hopefully options will be made more available, but be sure to look at the current rules before you sign up for that program that sends you to teach English in Asia or go on a working holiday in London.

7. Take note of your citizenship/passport country/nationality, your country of permanent residence, and your country of current residence.

These three things could be the same, or they could be wildly different. For instance, I’m on a Bangladesh passport, with Malaysian permanent residency, currently living in Australia. You’ll usually have specific IDs that designate your status for each country (especially if you hold dual residencies or citizenships).

Some countries may have different requirements for applying and being eligible for visas depending not just on your nationality but also your country of permanent residence — i.e., Taiwan only allows Bangladesh passport holders to come to Taiwan on sponsored business trips, so I couldn’t go and visit my friend for fun. But if I were an Australian permanent resident, I might qualify for special consideration.

Again, this is a very complicated area, and it can be unfair but nevertheless true that living in a country for a while might not make much of a difference to your visas. Check your information carefully.

8. Get your flights and accommodation sorted BEFORE you apply for a visa.

It does seem back to front — what if you don’t get the visa? However, many places will not grant you a visa until you have proof of a return date and a place to stay.

9. Get invitation letters wherever possible.

Again, pain in the ass, but what can you do? If you’re travelling to take part in an event, workshop, or conference, get the organiser to write a letter addressed to your local embassy with your full name, passport number, and nationality stating you’ve been invited to their event for a certain date/period. Most places that deal with international participants tend to have letters like these on file.

If you’re visiting friends or family, get them to write a letter, again with your full name and passport number, saying you’re their guest and they’ll be responsible for you and your expenses (they don’t really have to, it just sounds better this way). It’s best if they can get it on official letterhead, and even better if they can have it written not just in English but also in the native language of your country.

10. It’s better to have more paperwork than you need than not enough.

Bring anything that seems even vaguely relevant — invitation letters, proof of your stay in your current country, resumes, university certificates, bank statements, itineraries. My parents have brought prospectuses of their offices.

Anything not used will be returned to you, and sometimes you may get lucky (I had all this stuff at the ready for my U.S. visa but hardly needed any of it), but you don’t want to be denied a visa or have it all delayed because you missed a key requirement.

Epilogue: On the Bright Side

Do the 10 tips above constitute a major pain in the ass? Yes. But despite everything I’ve said, it’s still possible to get visas under tight circumstances.

I was invited to a workshop in Stockholm with less than a week’s notice. I doubted I’d get a visa in time, especially as an international student, but was determined to make it happen. As soon as I got the invite I printed off all correspondence, filled out the forms, and sped to the local Swedish consulate, where I explained my situation and provided my proof.

The lady at the office was initially skeptical but rang the head office anyway, and then (to the surprise of both of us) said she could fit my application in…if I could get a confirmation letter from the university, my bank statements, and my flight tickets before noon.

Cue a mad rush of a morning! But I got it all sorted, and within three days received my visa — apparently in record time!

So take confidence, my fellow high-riskers. Miracles can happen.

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