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Travelling used to be a matter of just getting up and going, but those days are no more. Nowadays, you have to spend time to get hold of passports and visas before you are able to leave or enter a country. Here is the rundown of everything you need to know to start.
All UK travellers need a valid 10 year UK passport in order to enter other countries1. Obtaining a passport is not a hard process, but it can be a fairly awkward one. There are two types of application forms available from the Post Office: form A is for first time applications; form R is used to renew a passport which has expired, or to replace one which has been lost or stolen. The Post Office have a helpful little service they imaginatively call the 'Passport Application Service'. For the small sum of £3.20, the counter clerk will check through your application to make sure it is filled in correctly. When you consider that 1 in 5 applications have to be returned due to errors, it is a small sum to pay.
Issuing of passports can take from two weeks to a month2, depending on the time of year that you apply. If you are in a real hurry, you can take your passport application into the passport office personally. This will cost you a £10 handling fee, and you may have to face interrogation on why you need the passport so quickly - or why you didn't apply for it sooner.
If you already have a passport and are planning a trip abroad, it is very important that you are aware of the expiry date. Not only should you ensure that there is enough time remaining for you to complete your trip, but if it is even close to expiring there may be problems. Some countries, such as Thailand and Australia, require a minimum of six months to be remaining on the passport after the date you plan to leave their country.
British nationals living abroad can renew their passports at the British embassy in their country of residence - but planning for this is essential, as the process can take a few weeks and the old passport must be submitted at the time of making the renewal application, so travel is not possible in that period.
Sometimes, when one country has a diplomatic disagreement with another, a passport stamp can be a bad thing. For instance, some Muslim countries, including Serbia and Syria, will not permit entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp; and the US do not look kindly on visitors with Cuban passport stamps. The solution is to get the more accommodating country, Israel and Cuba in these examples, not to stamp your passport - instead, if you ask, they will stamp a separate card which you then carry with your passport for the duration of your stay.
While you are abroad, carry your Passport with you always3 and in a safe place, such as a money belt or hidden pocket. Photocopy the main pages4 twice: leave one copy at home and take the other with you in case you lose your original. Store your travelling copy somewhere reasonably secure, such as in the safe at your hotel, and of course separately from your passport. If you do lose your passport, report it immediately to the nearest British Embassy or Consulate.
Most visas are stamped into the pages of your passport. Immigration officers in some countries are a bit fussy about stamping on a fresh page, so make sure you have enough pages in your passport before you go. Other, more bureaucratic countries, however, give you a formal written visa.
Some countries require you to have been issued your visa before you travel, while others are happy to give them out as you go along. Obtaining visas at the point of entry might suit the more footloose traveller, and can turn out to be quite a bit cheaper than applying at home5, so long as you are prepared to spend considerable chunks of time waiting around at immigration desks and to accept the increased risk of being turned away. If you are going to take this approach, make sure you have plenty of passport size photos with you.
Visas are generally quite quick to obtain, either being issued immediately or within a week - but some countries can take a bit longer, so make sure you leave plenty of time. Most can be obtained by post6, but some may need you to actually go to the embassy or consulate of the other country, usually a trip to London.
If you plan to leave a country temporarily during your stay there7, find out whether you need a multi-entry visa instead of the normal one - this may cost extra, but again will save you problems in the future.
The USA operates a 'visa waiver' scheme for UK citizens, meaning that you can be approved for entry when you arrive. However, the INS8 are sometimes difficult to convince of your motives, and you are advised to take a letter from your employer stating that you have a job to go back to. Note also that the visa waiver scheme only applies to travellers arriving by air, with a return ticket back to the UK: if you are going in overland from Canada, for example, you will need a visa. When you are allowed into the US, a piece of card will be stapled to your passport: keep this safe, and ensure that your airline takes it when you are checked in for your return flight. It is your proof that you left the country when you were supposed to, and failure to follow the correct procedure may result in problems the next time you wish to go there.