Obtaining travel documents for an international meeting can challenge even seasoned travelers. Depending on the destination, for example, meeting attendees and speakers may need to apply for visas several months in advance of the conference. And it often comes as a surprise that a passport due to expire in less than six months is not valid in some countries--including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina. Add the fact that regulations for travel documents change constantly, and the message to planners is obvious: Communicate information about passports and visas in initial meeting materials.

"We bring people from all over the world to a particular meeting site," notes Lili C. Merritt, director, conferences and meetings for the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), Washington, D.C., "so it is impossible to provide complete information about required travel documents. But we give general guidelines and tell people to contact the consulate [of the destination country] for specific requirements."

Merritt, who oversees about 30 international meetings a year, includes in promotional and registration materials information that tells participants how to help themselves. Still, participants often contact her for further information. "It pays for association planners to do the research, because when your speaker or registrant has a problem entering or leaving a country, it ends up being your problem." (Of course, corporate meeting planners have an even greater responsibility in the area of understanding travel document requirements for their meeting or incentive participants, who are traveling at the expense of their companies.)

One document that Merritt routinely provides the international conference participant is a letter of invitation to attend the conference. This invitation, along with additional information, validates the purpose of the visit and is necessary to obtain a visa (if one is required). Make it clear in the letter that the association is not offering any financial assistance to the speaker or attendee, she says, so that a participant cannot subsequently demand sponsorship from the association. Merritt adds that she routinely uses the association's contacts in the meeting destination when necessary to help expedite travel documents for international participants. "We've had to use our local people time and again to help rush a passport or travel document," she says.

Getting Help One way for U.S. meeting participants to speed the process is to get help from companies that specialize in obtaining travel documents. These companies help individuals and organizations navigate the regulatory maze of passports and visas. (See sidebar at left for sample listing.) Their representatives in Washington, D.C., and other consular cities speak foreign languages fluently, and they hand-carry documents to consulates to expedite 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.

Even a simple passport renewal can take an unexpectedly long time. Processing times vary, but it generally takes about four weeks for ordinary renewal by mail, depending on the particular passport agency and the time of year. Procuring visas can also be a lengthy process, depending on the destination, and even the expediting firm can't always provide super-fast service. One of the greatest misconceptions is that these firms actually have the stamps to issue passports and visas, when in fact, they just facilitate getting them.

No matter how desperate the rush, don't advise attendees to get a tourist visa. "The rule is simple," says Jan Dvorak, president of the Washington, D.C.-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." Those who aren't honest risk detention at the airport and confiscation of all business materials.

Visa rules change so often that the largest visa services company, CIBT, Inc. in McLean,Va., updates its database daily. "The requirements to get a Chinese visa in New York are different from the regulations in Chicago or San Francisco," says CIBT's director of account management Eric Lobel.

According to Lobel, the most common mistake people make is waiting too long to renew their passports. He advises renewing one year before the passport is due to expire. The second most common mistake is not having enough blank pages at the end of the passport. "People give us just enough time to get their visa, and then we find that the passport has no empty pages to put the visa on," he explains. Extra passport pages are available in 24-page inserts and take about 10 business days to obtain, says Lobel.

Sometimes difficulties arise not when meeting participants enter a country, but when they depart. Americans, for example, often don't know that nearby destinations such as Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and the Bahamas all require proof of U.S. citizenship in order to leave. This can be either a valid passport or a certified birth certificate along with a photo I.D., such as a driver's license. Voter registration cards are no longer accepted as proof of citizenship. Airlines will not allow you to board the plane if you don't have proper travel documentation.

Moreover, you should be aware that if the name on a birth certificate differs from the traveler's current name, it is necessary to provide documentation of the name change. Those bringing families to a meeting, should be aware that if children under the age of 18 are not accompanied by both parents, then there must be a notarized letter of consent from the non-traveling parent giving permission for the child or children to leave the country.

For fees ranging from $30 for nonrush service to $150 for same-day service, passport and visa services firms can expedite travel documents. The following is a partial listing of expediters and their toll-free telephone numbers:

* CIBT Inc. (800) 925-2428

* Embassy Visa & Passport Services (800) 977-8472

* Express Visa Service, Inc. (800) 977-8472

* Passport Plus. Inc. (800) 367-1818

* Travisa (800) 222-2589

* Visa Services, Inc., (800) 222-8472

Getting Help Online The Internet offers great information on travel document requirements.The following sites are particularly useful: http://gnn.com/gnn/meta/ travel/res/visa.html

This site has links to Internet resources for visa, passport, and entry requirements. Most useful is the "electronic embassy" that links to embassies in Washington, D.C.

http://travel.state.gov/pass port services.html Everything you need to apply for or renew a passport is here on the U.S. Department of State's passport services site, including lists of where to apply for a passport. There are also instructions for downloading passport forms and mailing applications.