When travelling you will be met with countries for which you need to have a visa to be able to enter the country. Usually these are valid for 1 to 3 months or just the duration of your stay. I’m talking about the regular tourist visas here, not work and diplomatic visas.
Depending on the relations between your home country and the country you want to visit, you may be able to get a visa on arrival. If not, you need to get one upfront. For this you will have to work with the embassy or consulate of the country you want to visit.
You can check here to see for which countries you need a visa. However always make sure and check other sources as well as information can be outdated. Ultimately you can check with the embassy/consulate of your home country.
Be aware of the difference between single and multiple entry visas. If you plan to visit a country and stay inside that country until you leave again, you only need a single entry visa. This is cheaper than a multiple entry visa, which you will need if you plan on entering the country, leaving it again to visit another country, and then coming back to the first country. In my case I need a multiple entry visa as during my stay in Vietnam I will exit the country to go to Korea for several days.
Embassy vs consulate
What is the difference between an embassy and a conulate? Well, there are differences for sure. And I don’t want to bore people too much with details. But here are a few points:
- an embassy is the place where the ambassador to another country is located
- the embassy is responsible for all official communications between the foreign and hosting country
- an embassy often has a consulate in it. This is what confuses some people. Often a consulate is housed inside the embassy to reduce costs. It’s cheaper to have just 1 building for both embassy and consulate together than to have 2 separate buildings.
- it is actually the consulate who deals with matters of visas
- a host country can have multiple consulates, but only 1 embassy
I guess those are the most important parts for the average traveller. But honestly the difference is not really important as you will most likely be dealing with the consular section without fully realizing it. Even if you are inside an embassy.
Now why am I telling you this? Well, I had some issues with my Vietnamese visa. The embassy is pretty far away from where I live and there is no consulate nearby either. So I had to send them the application, passport etc via post. According to them procesing would take just 5 days. However I had to wait much longer and I finally got my visa just 4 days before leaving (I sent it 15 days before departure). Much to my dismay, upon checking (ALWAYS CHECK!) I noticed that they made a mistake. The visa specified entry and exit months which were exactly 1 month later than my actual trip. This was frustrating because I had communicated with them several times, mentioning the exact dates and had checked my visa application form carrefully before sending it in.
Unfortunately, with just 4 days left before leaving (really actually just 3 and a half as half a day had already past when I got my passport back) there was no time to send the whole thing back by post to have it corrected. It also didn’t help that the Vietnamese embassy was closed for 2 days for a Vietnamese official holiday. And the third day it was closed due to an official holiday in the hosting country (Finland). I tried reaching out to the embassy but I could not get hold of them of course. I was finally able to reach one person, who tried to be very helpful. But as this turned out to be a dead end I won’t go into that here.
Online visa service
And so we come to the reason why I make this post. But let met first say the following:
I do not work for and am not associated with the service I will speak about. I have not been paid or otherwise incentivized to write about it. I am writing this for people who may be in a situation like me and have concerns using an online visa service.
Ok, so I have little time, an incorrect visa and the only option left for me is to now get a visa on arrival. To do that, for Vietnam, one needs a “letter of approval”. It looks like this:
It is very normal for you to see your full name, date of birth, nationality and passport number among several other people. The reason being that agencies request visas in bulk. If you do not want this for privacy reasons, you will have to request a visa upfront with the embassy/consulate.
Here is the issue: I had to work, I couldn’t reach the embassy at first and before I knew it another day was gone. Only just over 2 days were left now before leaving. However getting a letter of approval the standard way takes 2 days by itself. And if you know a little bit about Vietnamese government agencies, you know that you can’t rely on that time frame 100% 😉
So I turned to an online service that offers a rushed visa (really a letter of approval). There are various online places where you can get a visa. And there are several scams among them. I chose one that looked reliable, https://www.vietnamimmigration.com, and started a hasty check.
First, a quick Google search like “is <site> safe to use” or “is <site> a scam” turns up mixed results with pages of people asking the same question without getting an answer.
Then I checked if the site was listed as a scam, to do that, I used a site called Scamadviser. At the time of writing the result (http://www.scamadviser.com/check-website/vietnamimmigration.com) had a high trust rating of 93%. I made sure to also drill a bit deeper and checked the site details. Information about the site owner had been hidden, but this is not uncommon.
I performed the same check for http://www.vietnam-immigration.org.vn which also scored a 93% and looks to be registered and owned by the Vietnamese government. However I chose for the American service because they offered a secure connection (https) and were also just a little bit cheaper.
For comparison, at the time of writing, the scam site thbn.co.uk had a high risk / 0% trust rating. Which is a good result as it is a real scam site. Scamadviser seems to work.
Next I sent an email to their info@ address to see if they would reply quickly and professionally. I have to say that they did just that. I received a reply within minutes and after explaining my situation they assured me that they could help. From that point on communication was quick, clear and to the point. I got more confidence in the service at this point and went with it. There were a few delays because I was working but all together I think the whole process took less than half an hour from first contact to the finalized request. (I did the request all by mail, I did not use the online form on their page)
I opted for a “rushed” service which meant I got the approval letter the next morning, it costs a bit extra but I didn’t have the luxury of waiting. There was another even faster rushing option that would get me the letter of approval in just a few hours, but it was more expensive and I didn’t need it that fast. The prices are listed on this page.
After finalizing the request I got sent a payment link which used the onepay.com service. This is a trustworthy site, so I paid the fee and got a confirmation mail sent to me. Now all I had to do was wait until the next morning. I would get sent the letter of approval before 8:15AM the next day. They said that if I did not receive the letter, I should contact them.
Well, I did not get the letter. I waited a bit longer, I gave it about half an hour more. Then I sent them an email saying that I did not receive the letter. Again I got a quick reply, saying I should wait a bit longer. So I did, as it was all I could do. And then, 2 hours later, I got an email containing the letter of approval as well as the form that needs to be handed over to the immigration officers at the Vietnamese airport. It is good to fill this out up front and have it ready. These forms are available at the airport immigration service. But why waste time and effort filling it out there if you can do it in a relaxed manner at home 🙂
Be aware that you need to print out this letter of approval and you need to hand it over to the immigration service at the airport to make a valid visa on arrival request. In some cases they even ask to show the letter of approval when boarding the plane. So it is best to have it at hand. Colour print is good, but black and white poses no problem.
You can only get a visa on arrival at the three major airports in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Da Nang. If you want to enter Vietnam over land you must get a visa upfront!
Anyway. All I have to deal with now is packing, charging batteries, preparing a number of electronics, a GoPro that has the “helicopter sound” issue (I already had one returned, the new one has the same issue) and then I’m off to enjoy some sun!
Hanoi, Phu Quoc, Korea, Jeju, Sapa and other places: here I come 🙂
As always: happy travels!