Question: I’m trying to maneuver my way through the world of visas and realize I need help. Three of us are traveling to Cambodia and Vietnam. Is it better to get the visa yourself or have a visa service do it? Also, what about getting a visa on arrival? Another question: The flight to Cambodia will require two lengthy layovers, one in Seoul and the other in Shanghai. Is it safe to drink the water? What about food?
Answer: Let’s start with my favorite topics: drink and food.
When I was a kid, the family moved to Manila, and my mother insisted that the cook boil the drinking water. Even with that, we all got sick, and although we eventually recovered, my mother was puzzled about why this had happened. Then one day she walked into the kitchen and saw the cook filling the ice cube trays from the tap. She told the cook she didn’t need to boil the water anymore.
This was in the days before bottled water, which is pretty much the traveler’s salvation. Tap water may be fine, but why take a chance? I often brush my teeth with bottled water when I’m in a dicey place. Can’t hurt, might help.
As for food, alarm bells should sound with food that is “room temperature,” “raw,” “undercooked” and “unpasteurized.” Take a look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which allows you to specify your destination and suggests precautions based on it.
You won’t want to miss an opportunity to eat local cuisine, of course, so for a first-timer, starting at a higher-end restaurant may be key. Read guidebooks before you go, check with your hotel, and if you happen upon a winning restaurant, ask it for recommendations for your next dining experience. You also might want to pack medications for stomach troubles, so check with your doc before departure.
As for visas, here are your choices: Hire a visa service or do it yourself.
With a few exceptions, visas are fairly easy to get, so if you are a do-it-yourselfer, make travel.state.gov your first stop. That’s the State Department’s website, and it contains a wealth of information about entry requirements for foreign countries.
Click “Find International Travel Information,” then “Country Information.” Under “learn about your destination,” enter the country you’ll be visiting.
Stop. Do not pass go when you get to the “Quick Facts.” Here you’ll learn
►Whether you need a visa (yes for both Cambodia and Vietnam)
►How many pages you need in your passport book to ensure you get that visa
►How much remaining time is required on your passport.
We’ve said this before and we will say it again: Your passport is good for 10 years — but not really. At least, not in the eyes of some countries, many of which require your passport to be valid at least six months after your U.S. return date.
For instance, if you’re going to Cambodia or Vietnam for two weeks in March and your passport expires in June, you must renew it immediately, because each country requires six months’ validity.
Besides getting the passport book, you’ll need visas for both countries (and many others) and that also will take time.
What’s a visa? It’s a stamp, sticker or piece of paper that tells your host country that you are authorized to visit.
Some countries don’t require a visa. Others do, but say you can get it on arrival. Here’s advice from Ken Ripoll of Allstar Passports & Visas in Los Angeles: If you can get that visa ahead of time, it’s always better to have it with you.
For these countries, that entails
►Going to the embassy or consulate, Vietnam does not has a consulate or embassy in the Los Angeles area. Cambodia has an honorary consulate in Long Beach at that can help with visas.
►Submitting forms by mail, which requires paperwork and photos
►Applying for an e-visa, which requires paperwork and photos
►Asking a visa service to handle all of this.
I spoke with the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco (hit Translate for an English version), and both were helpful. Both offer e-visas, which requires one or two passport photos and a fee.
The good news: Most e-visas can be processed in three business days from those countries. But here’s the rub: E-visas may be accepted only at certain ports of entry.
If you apply by mail, processing takes about seven days from the date your paperwork is received. Besides the application, you’ll need to send fees (usually a money order or cashier’s check) and include return postage that can be tracked.
Assuming all goes well, you’ll need to scrutinize your visa to ensure it is correct.
To begin the process, visit the websites above and follow the instructions.
If this gives you pause, consider a visa service. To find one, check with your travel agent or friends (I asked world traveler John DiScala, founder of travel website JohnnyJet.com, who recently used A Briggs Passport & Visa), or check out SmarterTravel’s list of expeditors (which presumably can do visas in real time). Its list includes CIBTvisas, which is mentioned on many people’s list of reliable procurers.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with Ripoll of All Star, and he has always been right on the money with information about visas and passports, and he’s in L.A.
In terms of time and expertise, I think paying a pro pays off in the long run. I’ve done my own visa application, including one for China a couple of years ago, and it required two trips to the consulate in L.A. and a lot of paperwork and patience.
Using a professional company to obtain a visa is like hiring a contractor to do a home improvement project: If it must be done quickly and correctly, the person I want doing it is not me.
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