What's the difference? Visas and departure cards explained.

TRAVEL TIP: Before you go, get informed of country document requirements including visas and departure cards. Also, confirm your passport is current!

Dear Venturer,

International travel and the documents needed to enter or exit a country does not have to be complicated. You already have a passport but, what are the additional documents required? Knowing a few things ahead of time will help you sail through any country's customs line with ease.

So, what is the difference between a passport, a visa and a departure card?

Hopefully not much explanation is needed here.

  • A passport is an official document issued by a government, certifying your identity and citizenship and entitling you to travel under its protection to and from foreign countries.

Remember to keep your passport current and “always" use the information exactly as it appears on your passport when booking your flight or filling out documents. If you don’t, you could run into delays at the airport. Plus, certain countries require your passport have at least two blank pages and be valid at least six months or more from the departure date of that country.

In addition to a passport, some countries require a visa to enter and/or exit. This is what can take people by surprise. So what is a visa?

  • A visa is authorization by a country to enter and/or exit and remain for a set period of time. It can include limits on the duration of your stay, from the country you may enter, and the dates you may enter.

It is that simple. In each instance, a visa is subject to permission by an immigration official at the time of actual entry/exit and can be revoked at any time. This is what is stamped in your passport or it may come in the form of a separate piece of paper.

Before your trip, always check with the US State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs website to ensure you meet all travel requirements for that country. Especially if you need to obtain a visa prior to your trip or, if it can be purchased upon arrival.

Will you need one for our upcoming Albania or Colombia trips? In a nutshell; NO, at least if you're American. But check here for unique conditions.

Departure cards
I'm sure you have all questioned, what is the additional paperwork the airlines have us fill out on the plane? What is it and why is it necessary?

  • A departure card (or embarkation card) is a legal document used by immigration to provide passenger identification and record of a person’s departure from certain countries.

The departure card can come attached with its corresponding arrival card with the former being retained in the passport after passport control clearance. The card is then surrendered to passport control upon departure.

How does this differ from a visa? A visa is a conditional authorization for entry/exit. A departure card (or arrival card) confirms your arrival or departure dates.

Each person, is responsible for having these documents to enter and exit through any country. It's a good idea if you receive paperwork upon entering a country, to hold onto it until you return home. For example, in Thailand, immigration staples your arrival card inside your passport. If you are planning to travel onward to other countries, like Lao or Vietnam, you will need this to leave Thailand.

For more information about the country you are visiting and its document requirements: the state department website allows you to search by country to help prepare what travel documents are needed upon arrival. Or, if you don’t have the SMART traveler app yet, download it on your smart phone. It will make things a whole lot easier!

Happy Travels,
Lesley Ames
Chief Venturer, BonViage

PS: Think we forgot about that fourth piece of paper the airline provides when you arrive in the United States? Nope. That's a customs declaration form. Which is different! Don't get it confused with a country's departure card. And, if you don’t have a pen? Just ask your seat mate for one. It may open a nice conversation for that long journey home.