The Apidura guide for how to manage visas on bike tours abroad
One of bike travel’s greatest strengths is that it can be enjoyed almost anywhere in the world, regardless of whether it’s on road or off-road, in the mountains, deserts, forests or polar regions. If there is a will to go, and a suitable bike to take you there, then with the right planning and a little navigational nous then the world can become a very open and accessible place.
However, for many of those who choose to venture to foreign lands – in search of new terrain, new landscapes, new cultures and fresh faces – it is usually not the riding, or the struggles pertaining to the alien environments they may find themselves in, that prove to be the biggest barrier to onward travel. The real navigational difficulty comes in the form of the red tape and bureaucratic restrictions that divide continents, countries, and local regions the world over, dictating where, when, and by what means travelers are permitted to pass – if they’re even allowed to travel at all.
Getting over these barriers can require any number of documents, from letters of authority and special travel permits to passport stamps and – the main culprit – visas. All must be treated with the utmost diligence, but just like the barren deserts, high mountain passes, and cold winter nights, there is no reason why (most of) these bureaucratic barriers can not be overcome too.
- Begin research well in advance of your trip. Some visas can take weeks – even months – to process, so better to be safe by making sure you know exactly how the process works, and how long it will take.
- Don’t apply too early. Most visas have a validity period, so make sure it will still be in date by the time you intend to enter. Usually you can choose a rough start date, but sometimes they can be valid from the date of approval.
- Check where the best place to apply for your visa is. Usually it will be at the embassy in your home country (indeed, for some destinations this is the only accepted method), but a lot of nations now offer ‘Visa on arrival’ services, which can be an easier – even cheaper – process.
- Check whether ‘Visa on arrival’ is available at all ports – specifically land borders if you intend to cross from a neighbouring country.
- Check what requirements and other documentation you might need. For example: Proof of address and employment, exact photo measurement requirements, or valid travel insurance.
On the road
- For those on longer trips, applying for visas outside of your home country can often become a necessity due to restrictions relating to their validity periods and changes in travel plans. If this is the case, spend time researching how these visas can be gained: Which cities have embassies? Will embassy in country A be more likely to grant a visa than embassy in country B? Does this affect your route? How long will it take to get between the embassy and the border?
- When linking multiple visa-restrictive countries together, take care to ensure that the dates line up.
- If you have to send your passport in the mail in order to gain a specific visa from the embassy in your home country, make sure you do it at a suitable time. For example, a country where residents of your nationality can travel visa-free, or for extended periods.
- Check what currency you will need in order to pay for your visa. Tip: Always carry a stash of American dollars.
- Keep a stash of passport photos.
- Always befriend border officials. Having a basic knowledge of football is a useful asset when striking up such conversations.
General tips for successful visa applications
- Some visas will only be granted with proof of travel details such as flight bookings, hotel reservations, and full travel itineraries. Obviously this poses a problem for travelling cyclists (who won’t be flying in, don’t intend to stay in hotels, and have no idea what their itinerary is), but this too is a surmountable barrier: Find a travel agent to supply you with a written quote for flights; book hotel rooms, but cancel them in the period between the visa being granted and the cancellation fee becoming enforceable, and make up an itinerary.
- State a trustworthy itinerary. Avoid mentioning unstable areas, or those which the government would prefer you didn’t go to, and state recognised tourist hot spots.
- Only state your means of transport if you have to.
- Instill confidence in the consul that will either approve or reject your application. Be friendly, confident, and look presentable if visiting an embassy.
- Sometimes it can be easier to employ an agent to take care of most of the points listed above. If you can afford to spend an extra few dollars, it could mean a lot less stress, and a lot more time to enjoy riding your bike.
- Check general travel forums, such as the Lonely Planet Thorntree, or Tripadvisor Forum, to find out the latest advice. If it’s a difficult visa to obtain, the chances are that people are talking about it online. Certain Facebook groups can also be utilised for information.
- Remember that the bureaucratic landscape is often very fluid. Restrictions, requirements, and regulations can change on a very regular basis, so always check the latest, work out if any changes impact your plans, and then plan again.