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Passport vs. Visa – the Difference

It’s a common question – What’s the difference between a passport and a visa and why do I need a visa if I already have a passport? The short answer is, while they’re related to each other, they have totally different purposes. For U.S. passport holders, here’s what each is, why and when we need them!

What’s a passport?

  • A passport is an official document issued by your native (or adopted) country. It certifies the holder's identity and citizenship and allows him or her to travel. It contains basic information like date of birth, place of birth, sex, etc.

  • You don’t own your passport. Although the government issues a passport to you, it doesn’t belong to you. On the inside of your passport, it specifies that it’s property of the U.S. That’s why the government can revoke your passport.

  • A passport basically gives you “cred”. The statement in a U.S. passport requests that a country allow passage into the country, “without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.” You’re required to have a passport to exit and enter the U.S., and it’s your responsibility to make sure it’s correct.

  • There are different types of passports:

  • Regular passport: That’s the blue one and it’s what most of us have. They’re usually referred to as “tourist passports”.

  • Official passport: It’s maroon and it’s issued to an employee or official of the U.S. Government. You’ll mostly see them with military personnel. An Official passport might also be issued to spouses and family members of the government employee. You can’t use it for leisure travel. Like the description says, it has to be for official biz and you have to give it up once your official business is over.

  • Diplomatic passport: This type of passport is issued to a Foreign Service officer or to someone who has diplomatic status because they’re carrying out diplomatic duties on behalf of the US Government. Like an official passport, a diplomatic passport can’t be used for fun. And you’ve gotta give it up once you’re done with your diplomatic duties.

  • Passport card: The passport card is just a variation of the regular passport. Even though it has the same requirements and uses as a passport there are restrictions. You can only use a passport card for limited land and sea travel to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico.

What’s a visa?

A visa, on the other hand is issued by another country and allows a traveler to enter a country for a specific purpose.

  • Depending on the country, a visa may or may not be required. For countries requiring a visa, how you get one also depends on the country. Some are issued upon entry into a country, others may require an application in advance. Some are issued free of charge and others require a fee. Some may even have an option of either applying in advance or at the point of entry.

  • Like with passports, there are different types of visas. i.e., tourist, work, student. Some visas are stamped into your passport, some are basically stickers. I’ve had one that was stapled in - really!

  • Some visas, mostly for long term travel, may even require an interview and/or certain medical testing as a condition of entry. For example, Australia requires HIV testing for permanent immigrants and Belarus for those staying longer than three months. Dubai requires medical exams for expats! Wow!

  • A visa goes into your passport, but not the other way around.

The rule of thumb: A passport is a document issued to a citizen of a country while a visa is basically permission granted to a visitor by a country saying you’re allowed to be there. For U.S. citizens, check the U.S. Department of State for country-specific travel requirements.

Have you had to get a visa to visit a country? Tell me about it on Facebook or in the new comment section below!

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