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What Visa-Free Entry Really Means

One of the biggest misnomers in travel is the term “visa free entry.” Visa free entry only rarely exists, but this term is thrown around like it’s a widespread and common phenomenon. It’s only visa free entry when you can enter a country without having your passport stamped. Some examples:

  1. Americans and Canadians don’t need visas to visit each other’s countries.
  2. Western Europeans can travel around the EU visa-free.
  3. Australians and New Zealanders can freely travel and live in each other’s countries.

There are actually very few examples of visa-free entry in the world of immigration, but you would not know this by how often this term is used. More often than not, what visa-free really means is visa on arrival. It’s not visa free entry if you need to have you’re passport stamped. That stamp that the immigration official puts in your passport IS A VISA.

What is a visa?


An endorsement on a passport indicating that the holder is allowed to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period of time in a country.

Passport stamps

These stamps are all visas.

“Do you need a visa to go there?”

This is a common question of world travel. The answer is simple:

More often than not, when you hear or read the phrase “visa-free entry” it’s a lie. Unless you’re visiting a country that has a true visa-free arrangement with your country of citizenship, you need a visa. Whether you need to apply for it in advance or not is the question.

There are two ways of receiving a visa:

  1. You apply for it at a consulate in advance.
  2. You show up at the border and get the visa on arrival.

But, in the end, both of these visas are the same: they both tell you how long you’re permitted to stay in a country.

Is this misleading terminology confusing?

I do a little visa consultation work on the side, and every so often I get an email from someone who got busted for overstaying a visa they didn’t even know they had. They read that they could stay in a particular country “visa-free,” and they believed it. I then have to explain that visa-free entry really just meant that they did not have to apply for a visa in advance of arrival, and that the stamp in their passport is really a tourist visa.

It is perhaps understandable that some newbie travelers can get caught up on this misleading and highly overused terminology. The term “visa-free” is often thrown around in immigration dialogues both high and low. Even on the official immigration webpages of many countries the phrase  “visa-free” is still used to mean visa on arrival.

I repeat, if your passport is stamped you have a visa. “Visa-free entry” is one of the most misleading terms in travel. Don’t get caught up by this misnomer.


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Filed under: Travel Tips, Visas

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 80 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3169 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Puketi Forest, New ZealandMap