Immigration 101:
Travel Documents

Passports, visas, electronic travel documents: do you ever get confused about what you need to travel internationally when you just want to take off and go to that perfect beach you saw on Instagram? Don’t feel bad, the range of documents required to go to foreign countries can be daunting, so let’s take a look at them now.


A passport is simply an official document issued by a national government confirming an individual’s identity for the purposes of travel. Passports typically include a picture of the individual it is issued to, along with the person’s full name, place and date of birth, and signature. Most countries now issue biometric passports, which include an embedded microchip with identifying information about the person it was issued to. Biometric passports can be read by machines and are more difficult to counterfeit.

There are some specialized versions of passports. Diplomatic passports are issued to individuals traveling on behalf of their governments as official representatives of that government. Emergency passports are documents issued typically to replace stolen or lost passports for individuals abroad, or people who need to travel internationally for very specific reasons, such as the death of a family member. Emergency passports are typically valid only for very short periods of time, for example, long enough for someone to return to their home country if their passport was lost or stolen.

The United States also issues a document called a Passport Card. This document includes the same identifying information as a full passport, but lacks the booklet and pages for visas and other endorsements found in a full passport. The passport card is REAL ID compliant, but can only be used for international travel by land or sea to Canada, Mexico, and a few Caribbean countries; it cannot be used for international air travel.

Keep in mind, having a passport does not guarantee you the right to enter a foreign country, other documents or authorizations may be needed.


A visa is an authorization granted by a country to an individual granting them permission to enter the country issuing the visa. A visa is used in conjunction with a passport. Visas are valid for a specific period of time, which varies by nation and by type of visa. Not every country requires a visa for entry, while some countries only require visas for citizens of certain countries, and not for citizens of other countries.

There are many different types of visas, so we will focus on the ones you are most likely to need.

  • The tourist visa is the one most likely to be used by international travelers. This visa gives a traveler the right to enter a country for leisure activities. · Business visas allow the holder to perform work for pay in a country, but are not permanent. For a permanent or even long-term work-related relocation, you would need a work visa (or similar authorization).
  • Student visas allow the holder to live in and attend an educational institution within the country. Some student visas allow the holder to bring their dependents with them to stay in the country, but student visas typically do not allow the holder to work legally.
  • If you are passing through a country on your way to a third-party country that is your final destination, you may be required to get a transit visa, which, as the name implies, allows you to stay in a country for a very short period of time while traveling on to a further destination.
  • Finally, more countries are offering digital nomad visas, for remote workers wishing to relocate for a period of time, while working for a company located outside of the issuing country’s borders.

Again, these are just the most common types of visas a traveler may need. Other specialized visas exist, and the topic of work visas, along with permanent immigration to another country, will be discussed in a future blog post. All of the visas noted above are valid for a set period of time – tourist visas, for example, typically are valid for between 30 and 90 days. Visas may limit the number of times you can leave and reenter a country before needing to apply for a new visa. Most visas, aside from work visas, limit or prohibit your ability to earn money professionally. And violating the terms of a visa is grounds for deportation and other punishment, so make sure you get the right type of visa for your situation.

Visa-Free Travel

As mentioned earlier, not every country requires a visa for entry. And many countries have visa-waiver agreements with other countries, meaning passport holders of these nations can freely visit each other’s countries without acquiring a visa. For example, passport holders in the United States, Canada, and Mexico can travel to each other countries without visas; the Schengen Zone, which encompasses much of Europe, is another large visa-free travel area.

Electronic Documents

In recent years, more and more nations have begun requiring electronic pre-screening documents to be filed ahead of travel to their countries. A good example is the ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, introduced by the United States and required of travelers from nations that currently have visa-waiver agreements in place with the US. The purpose of systems like ESTA, and ETIAS – the European Travel Information and Authorization System – which the European Union plans to introduce late in 2023, is to provide an extra level of security by pre-screening travelers before they arrive at ports of entry. These systems are not visas, and are typically used among nations with visa-waiver agreements. Applications are submitted online. When authorized, a traveler does not receive a physical copy of an entry document, rather a file is electronically attached to their passport, which is made available to a border agent when your passport is scanned at a border entry point.

Other Documentation

Passports, visas, and electronic authorizations are the documents a would-be international traveler will most likely encounter. There may be circumstances when additional documents or applications are needed for entry into a country. In response to the COVID pandemic, a number of countries introduced online health certificates, or health visas, which require a traveler to upload proof of vaccination and, in some cases, the results of a recent COVID screening test. As the pandemic has waned, some countries have dropped their health certificate requirements, but not all have, so it is best to double-check with the official websites of countries you plan to visit to see if any additional entry information is needed.

Summing Up

Travel documentation can be a hurdle when you are making your international getaway plans. Specifications can vary from country to country, or even over time for the same country. For example, Japan had visa-free travel to more than 60 countries. But in response to COVID, Japan then required visas for all visitors to the country. Now, as of this month, Japan is reintroducing visa-free travel.

We hope this summary helps to clear up some of the confusion surrounding travel documents. CIBTvisas is also here to help. If you want to avoid the hassle of getting the travel documents and authorizations you may need, contact us and let us do the work for you.

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