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How to Navigate the Visa Process

by Dee Andrews

Visa Notification

Visa Notification

Be prepared. It’s a long process (and blog post.) So, you’ve decided to move or travel abroad and have a good idea of where even. That’s the fun part. Applying for a visa, however, is not fun. Start planning six to nine months ahead of your intended departure and be prepared for paperwork, expense and some stress.

Of course, every country’s immigration process is different, though many of the documents needed are standard for Americans no matter where you are moving or which type of visa you are applying. How you submit them or where may differ, but you will soon discover you need to go through some version of these steps if you intend to stay longer than your tourist visa will allow, typically 90 days.

Typical required visa documents:

1. Visa application form. See the website for the consulate of the country you are moving to, for example, Spain’s consulate in the U.S. if you intend to move to Spain. It should provide a specific list of the documents you will need and the process for submission.

2. Passport-type photos. Check the required size specifications; many differ from the standard U.S. passport photo size.

3. Passport. Ensure your passport is valid for a minimum of 4 months after your intended date of return to the U.S. This may differ depending upon the type of visa you are applying for.

4. Health documents verifying that you are in good physical and mental health, free of contagious or infectious diseases and drug addiction. These items must be specified, and this letter must be signed by a medical doctor. In many cases, this document can not be older than three months and must be translated into the language of the country you are applying. Consider your doctor may need a couple of weeks to dictate and process this letter.

5. Police criminal record clearance verified by fingerprints. In many cases, this document can not be older than three months and must be translated. The FBI website provides specific instructions and notes that the process can take up to 8-10 weeks. You can request expedited processing but there is no guarantee. See their website for details.

6. Proof of sufficient funds to live in the country without working for the period of time you and/or your family intend to stay there. Ask as many specific questions as you can to define what sufficient means and how to show it. Ask if you need to translate the documents and consider at least translating a cover letter that outlines your financial status. These requirements do differ if you are applying for a work or student visa.

7. Marriage certificate authenticated with the Apostille of The Hague, if you are applying with a spouse. Birth certificates authenticated with the Apostille of The Hague, if you are applying with children.

The Apostille of The Hague

in and of itself is not complicated, though the process of receiving one can be. In 1961, many countries agreed to accept each others public documents if they had an apostille, an embossed stamp certifying the authenticity of the document. In the U.S., it is given by the Secretary of State’s office in each state.

  • You will first need multiple certified copies of your public documents, which can take several weeks to receive. An internet search for the state and document you require (i.e. birth certificate, marriage certificate) should lead you to the state’s vital records department and outline the specific process, timeline and fees.
  • Submit your original public documents to the Secretary of State’s Office and request the Apostille of The Hague. The apostille should be issued by the Secretary of State where the document was issued.
  • Private documents, those issued by anyone other than a government authority must first be legalized at a notary public of your choice. Once notarized, submit the original documents to the county clerk’s recorded office where the notary is registered to verify the validity of the notary seal and signature. Then submit your documents to the Secretary of State for the Apostille of The Hague.
  • Countries who are not participants of the 1961 convention, and do not recognize the Apostille of The Hague, require foreign documents to receive a Certificate of Authentication. Contact the Secretary of State where the document was issued to receive specific instructions.
  • 8. Proof of travel/health/accident insurance. In many cases, proof from your insurance company that they will cover 100% of medical expenses with emergency and repatriation services and a minimum coverage is needed. U.S. policies with deductibles and co-payments are typically not accepted, and you will need specific travel insurance to cover your time in their country.

    Health Insurance
    See International Medical Group for information or call 1-800-628-4664. You can receive an instant online quote, and they will easily provide the documentation you need for your visa application. The cost for our family of four for one year’s emergency coverage was $2,410. For additional reading, visit Transitions Abroad.

    Important visa considerations:

  • Timing can be tricky. The application process for a visa normally takes between 3-6 months, but you must also consider that it can take between 2 weeks and 3 months to receive some of the required documents and Apostilles. Remember too that some documents can not be less than two or three months old when you make your application.
  • You may have to travel to another state in the U.S. to submit your application. The foreign consulate with jurisdiction over your home state may be located in a different state. Most are located in major regions of the U.S. (i.e. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York.) You and your family, children included, may have to travel to the consulate and make your applications in person. Children may need their own appointment time; check to ensure you schedule the correct number of appointments.
  • If you are considering a move to Europe, most of the European Union countries, have agreed to a collective immigration policy referred to as the Schengen treaty. Therefore, if you are considering one of these countries, you will actually apply for a Schengen visa. Typically you apply through the country you plan to spend the most time in. Consider though that different Schengen countries may have different policies regarding where you must travel in the U.S. for their consulate. This may be of help if you plan to travel around Europe for an extended time and live closer to one country’s consulate than another.
  • In some cases, communication with consulates must be done through email. It may be difficult to reach a live person and expect your questions to be answered briefly and simply. Be prepared for additional items to be requested after your initial submission.
  • The chicken before the egg. You may find it confounding that the application asks for your flight information in and out of the country and the address where you will be living during your time in their country… before you have been given approval to live in their country. While your intention may be to book your airfare after your visa is approved or to rent a home or apartment once you are in the country, realize you may need to make these arrangements long before you have your visa.
  • In many cases, the visa you receive is very temporary and once you arrive in the country you will need to finalize your immigration paperwork locally within 30-60 days. Also, if you decide to stay many years, many times you will have to reapply and go through a similar process each year.
  • Knowing these requirements

    and the time and money involved before you determine your destination and decide when to leave can be very helpful. If your intention is to retire abroad or stay for several years, this process may well be worth your time and money. If you are planning a six month or year move abroad, you may want to consider the immigration requirements for several different regions of the world before making your decision.

    Costs Incurred
    My running list of the costs incurred for my family for our visas, including insurance, to Spain:
    – airfare for four people to California: $892
    – hotel in Los Angeles for 2 nights: $358
    – car rental in Los Angeles: $48
    – visa application fees for four people: $400
    – renewed passports for two: $296
    – passport photos for four: $24
    – health documents translated into Spanish: $311.72
    – FBI fingerprinting fees and application charges: $48
    – certified copies and fees for marriage certificate: $50.50
    – certified copies of Colorado birth certificate: $37
    – certified copies of California birth certificate: $71.40
    – Apostille fees: $83.50
    – Photocopies: $12
    – FedEx to return passports with visas to us: $22
    – travel health insurance for four for a year: $2,410
    – translation costs for financials and FBI records: $600
    Grand Total: $5,664.12

    If you’ve made it to the end of this amazingly long post, you are cut out for the actual process of applying for a visa. Good luck.

    Disclaimer: The information is this article relating to the legal requirements for immigration is provided for general information only. I am not an attorney and this information is based on my own personal experience. The information provided is general in nature, is not all encompassing and is current as of January 2010.

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    { 12 comments… read them below or add one }

    Posie Patchwork February 21, 2010 at 2:24 am

    Oh wow, thanks!! If we were ever to post overseas from Australia, i would hope that the Army would do much of this leg work for us, times 6 people. Was hard enough getting Visa for Europe for our honeymoon many years ago. Love Posie
    .-= Posie Patchwork´s last blog ..Tropfest short film festival in Sydney – go Alyssa!! =-.

    Lemonade Makin' Mama February 23, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Just stopping by to thank you for visiting me on my SITS day and leaving some blog love!


    Dinners & Dreams February 26, 2010 at 4:16 am

    Very informative, Thank you. Btw, I have blogged about my 3 favorite places and tagged 5 bloggers. Thanks for tagging me:)

    .-= Dinners & Dreams´s last blog ..Culinary Dictionary: Letter D =-.

    wandermom March 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Wow! You’ve made me appreciate the fact that we’re a two-passports-each household (1 US, 1 EU) much more than I realized!
    .-= wandermom´s last blog ..Road Trip Ireland Part II – Dublin To Belfast =-.

    Zhu March 11, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    This is a great post, and it perfectly sums up information a lot of people tend to overlook. Yes, visas are important. And remember, better safe than sorry so do apply early and don’t underestimate the power of bureaucracy!

    Thanks to my French and my Canadian passport, I think the only travel visas I ever applied for were for China and Australia. Plus immigrating to Canada, of course, but that’s a different story!

    Dee March 15, 2010 at 10:52 am

    @ Zhu

    Yes, immigration is another story. I have such new appreciation for anyone trying to immigrate and the processes to go through.

    Dee March 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

    @ wandermom

    Oh, my, yes! Having that combination of passports must make a world of difference!

    Dee March 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

    @ Posie Patchwork

    Yes, I imagine the Army would do most of the legwork, though you would probably have to provide a lot of the documents.

    Even moving with a company, where the HR department does a lot of this, I imagine you still need to track down multiple copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, doctor and FBI letters.

    Dayna Palmer May 18, 2010 at 7:25 am

    Hi Dee,

    Thank you so much for this post. My family is planning a RTW trip that is not of a definite time period at this point. We were thinking about applying for Visas just so we don’t have to deal with the maximum 90 day stay in 180 days in the Schengen countries. Spain is where we are looking at as well.

    I am Canadian but a US resident but my husband and children are US citizens so it will be an interesting process to see if I have to jump through any additional hoops 🙂

    The break down of costs was great!! It gives me an idea of what we need to prepare for. One question, did you keep your US medical coverage and then have travel insurance over and above that??

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

    Dayna Palmer

    Dee May 18, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Hola Dayna,

    Our plan was to keep our US medical coverage and have travel insurance too, but turns out our US policy wouldn’t continue to cover us once we were abroad more than 90 days. We paid for doctor’s appointments in Spain out of pocket and figured the travel insurance would cover us if something catastrophic happened. The doctor we used in Spain was Dutch and had went to medical school in California. An office visit to his private practice was about $55 and prescriptions never more than $15.

    You might also be interested in my original blog, Sieze el Dia, which is a little more personal to our family and includes different stories.

    Good luck with your travel planning and visas.

    Alan November 11, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Travel to Russia, and living there, was a visa nightmare in the late 90’s. Now it is even worse. We used to be able to get one year visas. We would have to start planning for the new visas at least 3 months in advance of getting a new one. Then we would have to go our of the country and get it. Alan

    Brigitte February 18, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Hello everyone, if you need apostille services of your FBI Background check in an expedite manner (same day or next day processing), please contact Express Document Authentication Services at or call 202-223-8822. The company is located in Washington DC and can submit your FBI document same day (walk in service). FBI Background check is a federal issued document, therefore, this needs to be apostille by the US State Department. The company’s website at
    Thank you.

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