Document Check: 6 Essentials for International Travel

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of planning an international trip – choosing your destination, figuring out your itinerary, booking the tickets, buying travel gear. Before you get carried away with all the fun stuff, however, make sure you get your travel documents, vaccinations, insurance, currency, and cards in order.

Take care of this stuff ASAP so you don’t go bureaucrazy at the last minute

When getting ready for my Iceland trip last summer, I noticed my passport was due for renewal in 2017. Where had the time gone? Fortunately, I had the required 6 months’ validity and two empty pages for entry into Iceland and the UK. However, I realized that I did need to think strategically about when to send it in for renewal so I’d have it back in time for the trips I was considering for the upcoming year.

This also reminded me that having a passport is just the starting point of the bureaucratic preparation for international travel. I thought it might be helpful to have a list of items that require a longer lead time so you can avoid surprises, delays, and unnecessary fees.

Get Your Docs in a Row

I don’t know of anyone who enjoys bureaucracy, and if you’re like me, the natural tendency is to put off tedious, unpleasant tasks (especially when fees are attached). Resist the urge to procrastinate!

Checking off the items below well in advance of your trip will save you stress, money, and time in the long run.

While most of these items in this post can be handled through last-minute, expedited service, this is expensive, and there’s often no guarantee an agency will have everything ready. This could delay your travels and result in additional cancellation or change fees. Furthermore, some things need to be done in sequence (e.g., you need your passport before you can apply for a visa, and you need your birth certificate before you can apply for a passport).

Doing your research and checking off the items below well in advance of your trip will save you stress, money, and time in the long run. So don’t put it off. Seriously. Do it now.

Note: The information in this post is, admittedly, focused on Americans headed abroad. However, citizens of other countries may find this list useful as a guide for seeking out equivalent resources in their own countries. The U.S. State Department is a good resource for all things international travel, as it has country-specific information broken down into manageable chunks to help you figure out passport, visa, and immunization requirements, basic safety information, local laws, etc. The level of detail varies by country, though, so this should just be used as a starting point.

New passport and travel card
My fresh, new passport. I’m good until 2026!

1. Keep your passport up-to-date.

Knowing your passport is ready to go makes it much easier to say yes to international travel. You can take advantage of last-minute fares, you avoid expedited processing fees, and when you need a visa, you’re already halfway there with your application. Even if you’re not sure where or when you’re going abroad, get it and have it ready.

Stay current: If you already have a passport, don’t let it expire. Renew it well before the expiration date. Many countries require a passport that is valid for 6 months beyond your date of entry. You may also need at least one or two blank pages for entry and exit stamps.

How to apply: To renew or apply for the first time, read all the details at the State Department’s passport site. For a government site, it’s actually pretty straightforward and easy to follow. 

Note that

  • You can renew by mail if you send in the form, fees, picture, and your old passport
  • First-time applicants need to submit in person (usually at a Post Office). You’ll need a photo ID, and your original birth certificate, so plan in enough lead time to get that as well.  

Don’t procrastinate: The State Department expects high application volumes through 2018 and thus encourages people to renew (or apply for) passports well before their planned travel. Currently their page lists a 4-6 week processing time.

2. Verify visa requirements.

Check the State Department’s website for passport validity and visa requirements for the countries you plan to visit. You can also get information from specific countries embassy or consular sites.

This visa application process is usually straightforward, but not always. Many countries do not require visas for tourists who stay under 30 days. Others provide visas on arrival, which means you can apply on site when you arrive. Some, however have very specific requirements that you must follow to the letter.

Things to look for: Take note of the document requirements, fees, turnaround time, etc. and plan accordingly. You may need to specify type of visa (tourist, private visitor, transit, multiple entry, etc.).  You might also need to show proof of vaccinations, onward travel, or other types of documentation.

Here are a couple of interesting examples (just excerpts):

  • India’s official visa processing agency issues multiple-entry visas good for 10 years at a cost of $100. However, it’s apparently also possible to get an e-Tourist visa that will allow you to visit for 30 days.
  • Visitors to China have to register with the police within 24 hours of arrival have to have their passport and visa with them at all times. Some areas, like Tibet, require special permits (which you get through a Chinese travel agent).
  • If you go to Uzbekistan, you should get multiple entry visas because you may need to cross borders while using transit.

Bottom line: Do your research before you begin the visa application process because sometimes you’ll come across seemingly contradictory or confusingly worded information.

The International Driving Permit
The International Driving Permit: another opportunity to show off a bad photo of yourself

3. Get an international driving permit (maybe).

People may refer to this as the “international driver’s license” but it’s not a standalone document; your valid driver’s license issued by your state/country has to accompany it. It’s a document verifying that you have a valid government-issued driver’s license in your home country. Some countries require the IDP when you rent a car; others “highly recommend” it. 

Check (and double check) with the rental car agency you are using whether you’ll need this or not. I was told I’d need it when driving in several European countries. Most never asked for it. However, in Croatia I had to show it before they’d give me the keys. It’s hard to find a definitive list of countries that require it. Europe travel expert Rick Steves offers this assessment:

“You may hear contradictory information on exactly where you need an IDP… It’s a good idea to get one if you’ll be driving in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, or Spain — countries where you’re technically required to carry a permit… If all goes well, you’ll likely never be asked to show this permit — but it’s a must if you end up dealing with the police.”

The IDP costs $20 (+ applicable shipping if you apply by mail). You’ll need a valid driver’s license with 6 months’ validity remaining and 2 passport sized photos.

Only two agencies are authorized to provide this in the United States:

  • AAA – apply in person at a branch office (these are becoming scarce) or by mail
  • AATA – apply by mail

For a comprehensive explanation of the IDP and application process, check out DMV.org.

4. Insure yourself at the outset.

Depending on where you buy it, traveler’s insurance combines several types of coverage into one, generally low-cost, package. This might include emergency medical, evacuation, trip cancellation, lost luggage, rental car, and a few other types of protection.

Credit card coverage is getting better these days but it still leaves some gaps. I like the peace of mind provided by a comprehensive travel insurance provider like World Nomads. (They are not paying me to say this.) Their rates are reasonable, what they cover is clearly outlined, and it’s super easy to purchase online. I buy insurance from them for every trip, and I sign up as soon as I start my bookings since it provides some coverage for pre-travel delays, cancellations, and mishaps (restrictions apply).

Most important to me is the medical coverage. Most insurance does not cover you if you’re out of your home network, especially if you’re traveling internationally. Also, If you’re into adventurous activities or traveling to play sports, you may be required to show proof of coverage before you’re allowed to participate. Make sure you double check what activities are covered; for example, ice hockey is covered in World Nomad’s standard policy, but snorkeling requires an upgrade.

5. Protect your health.

Check with the State Department and the CDC for the vaccinations that are required or recommended for your destination. Some countries require you to show proof that you’ve been vaccinated against specific diseases to ensure you will not be spreading them within their borders. In other cases, the CDC advises pre-travel vaccination to protect yourself and others from disease prevalent at your destination.

Where to go: Your regular doctor may be able to provide vaccinations and travel-focused health advice, but you can also get these services from clinics at pharmacies like Walgreens or dedicated travel clinics like Passport Health.

When to do it: Don’t wait until right before you go. Some vaccinations require a follow-up booster weeks or months later to ensure full immunity. In some rare cases you could experience a reaction so you want to make sure you’re in the clear before you start your journey.

What else: Vaccinations aren’t the only health consideration you might need to make when you travel. Check with doctors if you’re pregnant, have a compromised immune system, or have other specific health needs. It’s also a good idea to look into the state of medical care in the countries you’re visiting so you know where to go should you need it.

Indian rupees
Cash comes in handy sometimes.

6. Cash or credit?

I pay with credit cards whenever possible, but I do like the security of having cash on hand in case I can’t use my card. Most of the time, for convenience, I just use my ATM card to get cash when I land. However, fees irritate me, so sometimes I exchange whatever I happen to have in my wallet at the airport. How’s that for some definitive, and well-reasoned advice?

If you must: If for some reason you do want to get foreign currency before you go, you can order it from Travelex, AAA (if you’re a member), or (maybe) your bank. It’s possible you can get better rates if you buy ahead, but some countries’ currency (e.g., Mongolia) can’t be purchased until you arrive.

Travelers cheques: I’d forget about travelers’ cheques altogether, if you even thought of them in the first place. While they do offer some protection for your money, the few times I’ve gone out of my way to get them (due to some travel guide’s recommendation), cashing them ended up being more of a pain than any of the other options.

Credit considerations: Credit is definitely my preferred means of payment, but there are a few things you should think about before you go.

  • Consider getting a traveler-oriented credit card that doesn’t charge foreign exchange fees. Standard cards charge up to 3%, so this can add up if that’s your primary means of payment. Many of the popular travel cards (e.g., Chase MileagePlus or Sapphire, Citi AAdvantage, to name a few) don’t charge these fees. Apply for one  or have one of your existing cards converted before you go. Even better, get your travel card before you book so you can earn points and take advantage of all the card’s perks.
  • Make sure you tell the banks issuing your ATM and credit cards where and when you’ll be traveling. This way, they won’t flag uncharacteristic purchases or block access to your cash. Most banks have online forms (just search for “travel notification” on their sites) or you can just call and talk to a rep.
  • During and after your trip, keep a close eye on your card activity. Contact your bank immediately if something doesn’t look right.

And finally… back it all up.

While you’re traveling, make sure you keep a paper and/or electronic copy of all your important information handy:

  • Passport picture and visa pages
  • Driver’s license, other photo ID
  • Insurance policy
  • Vaccination records
  • Credit and ATM card numbers and bank contact information.
  • Itinerary

Keep electronic copies are locally accessible on your phone or other device so you don’t have to rely on WiFi. I usually have them in my phone’s photo archive. I suppose I’m taking a risk of dead batteries or stolen devices with electronic copies, but it kills me to print out reams of paper every time I go somewhere. So, use whatever backup method makes you most comfortable and be sure to keep the copies separate from the originals.

In any case, the most important thing is that you are prepared. Deal with all the bureaucratic stuff ahead of time so you’re not stressed out at the last minute.

Have anything to add? What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received for being a well-prepared traveler? Add your recommendations in the comments. 

Want to travel knowing you’re well prepared for a fantastic journey? Let’s talk about how I can help you eliminate the stress of travel planning. 

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