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How to Apply for a Visa: Visa Application Overview + Paperwork

If you’re applying for your first travel visa, don’t be afraid! I’ve been through the visa application process over 40 times as I’ve been living abroad since 2013.

The visa application process can be daunting and expensive, but if you do it right the first time, you won’t have to re-apply or pay for expensive legal help to fix any minor mistakes. 

My First Visa Application

The very first visa I applied for was my Student Visa to India. I was studying abroad for a summer in northern India and I needed to apply for a Student Visa on my own at the Indian consulate in NYC.

I was then living in Boston and I couldn’t afford to go in person so I mailed in my visa application. It was terrifying!… What if they lost my passport? What if they said no? What if it didn’t come in time?

I had so many concerns that I paid for the premium expedited service despite having 2 months until my departure date! 

2 weeks late, my passport was mailed back to me with a beautiful Indian Visa inside. This was my first experience applying for a formal visa… but it wouldn’t be my last. 

Visa Application Overview

In this article, I’m going to take you through the basics of any visa application process. You can apply this visa framework to nearly every single visa type in whatever country you’re interested in. 

If you’re eligible for Visa on Arrival (i.e. you just show up) – this article is not about that.

This article will cover: 

  • Types of Visas available 
  • Preparation for a mail-in application 
  • Preparation for an in-person application 
  • What do if you’ve been rejected or approved

As a reminder, this is for informational and educational purposes only. I am not an immigration lawyer so please consult legal advice before investing any resources. 

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It’s a 5 week, end-to-end online program that will hand-hold you through the entire move abroad process. The Master Class covers everything from Visas to Immigration, bringing family members over, finding a job abroad, and more! 


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Types of Visas Available

There are a variety of visas available and each one has its own requirements associated with it. 

  • Tourist Visa (short-stay)
  • Work Visa (1 – 5 years)
  • Student Visa (+6 months)
  • Family/Partner Visa (Permanent Relocation) 
  • Specialized Visa (+1 year) 

The Tourist Visa is the most popular option for those traveling casually. You can get that on arrival in some cases (depending on your passport) by just turning up at the airport.

This article will NOT focused on the ‘visa on arrival’ process.

This article will focus on the formal visa process where you have to send in your passport or have an in-person meeting.

Depending on your passport, you might have to endure the formal visa process even for a short-stay tourist visa and my heart goes out to you! This article will be helpful for anyone from any region (not just Americans). 

Check out my ‘How to Live Abroad’ Blog Post for the end-to-end ‘Live Abroad’ process.

Common Visa Process Documents

For whatever visa you apply for, you’re always going to have to send in the basic identification documents. This would include:

  • Two fully completed application forms. Printed and signed at the end.
  • Two passport photographs 
  • Valid national passport
  • Personal covering letter explaining the exact purpose and duration of stay.
  • Proof of a clean criminal record.
  • Proof of paid visa fee.

When you investigate the specific requirements of your visa, then you’ll start to see differences. For example, in addition to the materials above, a German Work Visa also requires:

  • Proof of residence. Your driver’s license and/or utility bill in your name as proof of residence in the territory of the consulate where you plan to apply.
  • Proof of Health insurance OR payment of Healthcare surcharge . You can temporarily be on travel health insurance until your public or national health insurance kicks in. 
  • An employment contract / binding job offer with details of gross annual salary and a detailed description.
  • Approval by the local employment agency (If applicable).
  • Curriculum Vitae. Your updated CV, which indicates your academic qualifications and your job experience.
  • Proof of Qualification. Diplomas, Certificates, Mark-sheets etc., or anything similar that proves your qualifications.

Be sure that you include every document required (it will say on the country’s consulate website) in your original application OR ELSE they will deny it and send your application back. 

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Mail-In Visa Application Process

For the mail-in visa process, you’re going to need to gather all of your documents and mail in the following:

  • Your application
  • Your passport 
  • A Money-order with the cost of the application paid for 
  • Any necessary documents
  • A pre-paid return envelope with your address on it

NOTICE: Most Visa applications will also require you to send pre-paid postage along with your visa application so they can mail your original documents back. I would 100% recommend adding tracking to the return envelope so you can keep track of important documents. 

If your application is missing something, they will likely email you first before rejecting your application completely. If you’re found to have lied about any of the information on the form, they’ll reject you and send your materials back. 

The mail-in visa application process can take anywhere from 2 – 10 weeks. It really depends on the country you’re applying to and how their bureaucratic processes work. Give yourself ample time for the visa application process in case you’re application is rejected and you have to apply again. 

If you have any questions before you apply for your visa, be sure to email the country’s consulate in your region/home country for advice. Do not email your consulate for that information. 

In-person Visa Application Process

If you’re applying in person, there are a few different scenarios. These would include:

  1. Scenario 1: In-person interview at the country-of-interest’s local consulate. They will mail your documents and visa (if you’re approved) to your home residence. 
  2. Scenario 2: In-person interview at the country-of-interest’s local consulate. They will approve or reject you immediately and you can leave with your documents that day. 
  3. Scenario 3: Multi-step in-person process. 

There are sometimes ‘premium’ in-person visa application services that you can elect to pay extra for, but that doesn’t mean they’re more likely to approve your paperwork!

In 2017, My Family Visa was denied by the UK government (unjustly) and I had paid £1600 for the ‘premium service,’ which gave me a decision within a 4 hour processing period.

I was then told on Friday to get out of the country the next Monday for a 2.5 year ‘cooling-off period’ so I wasn’t happy, to say the least. Fortunately, we got the embassies involved and fought the decision. 

I was then able to stay without a problem. SO STRESSFUL THOUGH. 

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If Your Visa Application is Rejected

Get everything in writing!!! I cannot stress this enough. 

If you were rejected for a silly, easily fixable reason, you’ll be able to see that in the rejection letter and then adjust accordingly. 

If you were rejected unfairly or there is a dispute, take the paperwork to your consulate or embassy and explain why you think you’ve been unjustly denied.

They will be able to give you better guidance regarding your options. You can often make an appointment online to speak to someone or you can call an emergency hotline if it’s urgent or if there are children involved. 

Next, start looking for immigration lawyers that specialize in that country’s immigration policies and processes. They will be able to give you concrete advice, BUT their fees will start around $200 and then go up from there. 

Keep Applying and Don’t Give Up!

As someone who has had their visa application rejected, I empathize with anyone who is trying to start a new life abroad in a foreign land!

My heart goes out to all the immigrants in the world because this sh*t is so unnecessarily frustrating and intimidating.

There is no reason immigrants – myself included – should be treated like criminals when we’re trying to pursue a better life.  

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