"Where are your papers?" Or, what you need to know about passports, visas & money.

Even though we live in the Digital Age and reach up to the Cloud with our smartphones and tablets without thinking twice, there are still some important hard-copy documents that we need when traveling.

Part I, Passports and Visas.

To jump off the mothership known as the United States of America - and then later to jump back on -, you'll need a passport. The passport is globally accepted proof of who you are; it's a record of what you look like, your citizenship, your home address and where you've traveled over the past ten years.

The processes you'll undertake to get permission to travel abroad epitomize the word bureaucracy - time, legwork, paperwork and money. These are requirements with a capital R, and you want to follow the rules to the letter. Why? Money spent on airplane tickets, hotel rooms or tours may not be refundable, in part or wholly, under any circumstances. Passport isn't valid? You don't have the proper visa? Sorry, Charlie, you can't get this deposit back and you have to fly back on your own dime right now. You don't want any problems at the border, either leaving or returning home. No, you really don't.

Here's what you need to know about passports and visas:

  • Check that your current passport is valid through your scheduled return date, or apply for your first one. The passport (re)application process can be lengthy and depends on multiple factors, e.g., if you're a first-time applicant, your age and if you fall into other categories (you're a diplomat or a US citizen applying from abroad). Everything you need to know about US passports resides on the passport section of the State Department website.
  • Read the US State Department's Country Specific Information for entry and exit requirements for US citizens of all the countries you'll be visiting. (There's a wealth of other important information on each country - crime and health, for example -, so I'd say it's well worth reading the entire section on each country you'll visit.) Some countries require that your US passport be valid for a specified period even after you're scheduled to leave, take Spain for one. Depending on the country, like for China, you may also need to get a visa in addition to your US passport. A visa - no, not the credit card of the same name - is a document issued by the country where you will be travelling that grants you permission to do so. Before leaving the US, travelers apply for visas at foreign embassies in the US. For example, I went to the Chinese Embassy in Chicago to apply for a visa to travel to China a few months before I left. The visa is usually affixed to a blank page inside your passport and sometimes carries a fee, depending on the country. The time to process and obtain visas can be as short as an hour or as long as a few weeks, depending on the host country. Further, a country might need you to apply for an special tourist permit to visit some regions, like China requires for tourists wanting to visit Tibet. Some countries may need you to show proof of immunization against specific diseases.

I'm sure you've noticed the phrase I repeated and emphasized in the preceding paragraph. The rules are different for each country. Here it is again: the Country Specific Information at the US State Department website. Check it.

  • My last piece of major advice about passports: Carry your passport only when you have to. Mostly, you'll need it only when you're crossing country borders. Your passport is the most valuable thing - second only to your own person - that you'll have. Make a photocopy of your passport (and accompanying visas) and carry the photocopy, keeping the original in your room's safe.
  • What about my driver's license? If you're staying domestic, don't bother bringing your passport if you have another valid government-issued photo ID, like a state-issued driver's license. It might make you feel better having a second government-issued ID with you. But you won't get carded anywhere - not for bars, nightclubs and any other business in the US that cards. If you'll be traveling and renting a car abroad, you'll need to carry your state-issued driver's license. The US and a few other countries have agreements to honor each others' driver's licenses. Or, you may need to get an international drivers' license. But, check this - and check the rules of the road...

Part II, Money. Or, Supporting Papers.

Subsection A: Plastic.

  • Make a photocopy of your credit and debit cards (both sides) and leave that with your passport, too. If your cards are somehow lost, you'll have the toll-free numbers to report them missing. Before you leave, let your banks/credit card companies know where and when you'll be travelling so they don't turn off your account while you're away, thinking it might be compromised. Would kinda suck to render your own credit and debit cards useless.
  • Ask your bank what their international transaction fees are. Ask if your bank has an agreement with a local bank for a lower ATM withdrawal fee. If they do have an agreement with a local bank, go to the local bank's website. Look at their logo so you'll recognize their bank branches and ATMs on the street. Find locations of bank branches and ATMs near where you're staying.
  • Consider the emergency credit card. It's the one you rarely use at home, and when traveling, keep in that beloved hotel room safe. I don't always carry two credit cards and a debit card, but when I have, it's nice to know it's there.

Subsection B: Currency.

  • You'll want to have some foreign currency in a range of denominations before you travel. The exchange rate might not be as favorable - potentially - but I think this is a lesser evil than walking around with zero cash looking for a reputable bank/financial establishment abroad. Who knows? You might need something to eat or take a taxi right when you arrive, and it might be late at night... Credit card acceptance isn't ubiquitous. Cash still rules everything around me.
  • If you need to use an ATM, exercise a lot of caution. And patience helps, too. ATMs may only display in the local language(s). Even though some ATMs will have an English-language option, they can still be difficult to understand. When I was in Shanghai, the ATM was a labyrinth of English-ese. I spent a long time navigating around and had to try the transaction several times, just to extract some precious yuan. The ATM was in a secure, indoor place. It was during the day and I was in a group.
  • Get familiar with how the currency looks, too. If you're in a rush to buy something or to pay your cab driver, you'll want to be sure you're grabbing the right note and coins, and likewise, receiving the correct change. Generally bills of higher worth are larger than others... for those of you who have not at one point collected coins. (Nerd.)
  • Don't carry all your money with you. This will help you budget, and if you lose your wallet, you won't lose everything. Use that lovely room safe again.
  • Don't tempt a pickpocket or a thief. Obvious, I know. But, I see many people who leave themselves vulnerable. Maybe you've been to this country before and know the language. Maybe you think you're in a non-touristy, "safe" part of town during the day. Maybe you've just gotten comfortable in your new favorite neighborhood. Or perhaps you're lazy. It's not paranoia, it's caution. You can read about common scams or swindles in many travel guides, and of course, on the US State Department site.
  • Other points of miscellany: One, I don't use those "hidden" wallets because I think the hassle of getting cash in/out of something under your shirt, say, in an outdoor market, is more trouble and embarrassment than it's worth. Two, I hardly ever use my checkbook, even at home, so I don't take those on vacation, nor do I use American Express Travelers' Checks. The latter are quickly falling out of fashion. Three, you can't exchange foreign coin currency at most US banks. And, sometimes you can't even bring foreign currency outside of that country - so try to use that up before you come home! Finally, learn the local customs when tipping for services and bargaining/negotiating.

Ok, that was a lot! Whew! But we travelers are held responsible to abide by the rules, whether we know them or not. What are your passport and money tips?