Did you know that to visit some countries, meeting attendees and speakers need to apply for visas several months in advance of a meeting? Or that a passport due to expire in less than six months is not considered valid in some countries--including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina? Or that the rules and regulations for visas change daily?
The following tips will help you stay on top of the details:
1. Inform attendees early about travel documents--As early as possible, and as often as is reasonable, remind attendees of any passport or visa requirements for entering the country of your meeting.
2. Don't underestimate the time it takes to process a passport--Even a simple passport renewal can take an unexpectedly long time. It generally takes about four weeks for ordinary renewal by mail, depending on the particular passport agency and the time of year.
3. Check for blank pages at the end of the passport--Extra passport pages are available in 24-page inserts and take about ten business days to procure.
4. Start the visa application process early--Give yourself and attendees a minimum of six months in advance of the meeting.
5. Don't advise attendees to get a tourist visa--"The rule is simple," says Jan Dvorak, president of the Washington, DC-based visa services firm Travisa. "If the country requires a business visa and you are doing anything but sightseeing, you are not a tourist." According to Dvorak, it usually costs a bit more to get a business visa, but it is well worth the few extra dollars. "Most countries are very favorable to business visitors," he says, "and it's just as easy to get a business visa as a tourist visa." Further, those who aren't honest risk not only detention at the airport, but confiscation of all business materials, including computers.
6. Be aware that visa requirements change--They change so often, in fact, that the largest visa services company, McLean, VA-based CIBT, Inc., has a huge computer database of travel document requirements that is updated daily. "The requirements to get a Chinese visa in New York are different from the regulations in Chicago or San Francisco, and every day we get calls about new regulations," notes CIBT's Director of Account Management Eric Lobel.
7. Don't forget your speakers--Communicate all information to them as well as to attendees, and ask them to check with the consulates as needed.
8. Call for help--Consider contacting companies that specialize in obtaining travel documents. These companies can navigate the regulatory maze for you and your meeting attendees. Their representatives in Washington and other consular cities speak foreign languages fluently and hand-carry documents to the consulates to expedite their processing. Fees (exclusive of government fees) are based on how much time is involved and, in the case of visas, how difficult they are to procure.
9. Don't expect miracles--Even expediting firms can't always provide superfast service. "One of the greatest mis-conceptions is that we have the stamps to issue passports and visas," says Heike B. Esteyp, director of sales for Express Visa Service, Inc. "We facilitate getting these things done, but we still have to comply with different countries' regulations."
10. Check the country's departure rules--Sometimes difficulties arise not when meeting participants enter a country, but when they depart. Some destinations close to the United States, including Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and the Bahamas, require proof of U.S. citizenship in order to leave. This can be either a valid passport or a certified birth certificate and a photo I.D. such as a driver's license. A voter registration card is no longer accepted as proof of citizenship.
For fees that range from about $30 (excluding government fees) for non-rush service to $150 for same-day service, passport and visa services firms can help cut through the red tape and long waits for travel documents. They sometimes provide additional services as well, such as 24-hour information and emergency hot lines or emergency passport kits that help a traveler quickly replace a lost or stolen passport.
The following is a partial listing:
CIBT Inc. (800) 925-2428
Embassy Visa & Passport Services, LLC (800) 977-8472
Express Visa Service, Inc. (800) 488-0021
Passport Plus Inc.(800) 367-1818
Travisa (800) 222-2589
Visa Services Inc. (800) 222-8472