Travel dilemmas: Visas may be in our future

Question: My wife and I are planning a trip to Europe this summer. I recently read that the European Union may not allow visa-free travel for U.S. citizens. Does this mean we'll need to get visas for the countries we plan to visit?

—Murray Zichlinsky, Anaheim, Calif.

Answer: There is not yet a clear-cut response to Zichlinsky's question — not yet anyway. Which is annoying, but then almost everything about a visa is.

As with anything involving international borders, there are issues beyond the issues. Let’s look at them and see whether the tangle of who is doing what to whom might become, if not clearer, at least less perplexing.

Q: What is a visa?

A: It's permission to enter a country, usually recorded as a stamp or sticker in your passport.

Q: Do you always need a visa to visit a foreign country?

A: No, not always, especially if you're a tourist. For instance, many Western European countries essentially just wave in U.S. citizens. Or at least they have been doing that

Q: How do I know if I need one?

A: You go to the State Department's website and search for the country or countries you're going to visit:

Q: What if I do need a visa?

A: Depending on the country, you may need to go to the embassy or consulate (or mail your passport to that embassy or consulate or use an online application) or ask a visa service to handle it.

Q: But why does, say, China make me get a visa?

A: The short answer is visa reciprocity.

Here’s how the State Department’s website explains it: “When a foreign government imposes fees on U.S. citizens for certain types of visas, the United States will impose a reciprocal fee on citizens of that country/area of authority for similar types of visas.”

Q: OK, up until now, Americans didn't have to have a visa to travel to France, for instance. Could that change?

A: It could. Whether it will depends on whether the U.S. and Europe can come to an agreement.

Q: What's that about?

A: Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Poland and Cyprus let U.S. tourists visit their countries without a visa. But the U.S. asks that citizens from those countries obtain a visa before visiting the U.S.

Q: Isn't that a little unfair?

A: Depends on whom you ask. The U.S. State Department says those five countries have not met the standards for visa-free travel.

But the European Union says the U.S. has not made progress in lifting the visa requirement. Talks are continuing.

Q: If this isn't resolved, I'd have to get a visa for Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Croatia and Cyprus?

A: Yes. But wait. There's more.

If the U.S. does not change its policy concerning those five countries, the European Union may change its mind about allowing U.S. citizens to move freely — that is, without a visa — among its 28 countries. (Not every European nation is an EU member.)

Saber-rattling? Could be. But as the EU points out, this has been dragging on for three years. Some movement is expected by the end of June.

Q: Now what?

A: There is little you can do to affect the outcome. If Europe is on your vacation radar, this might be the time to make friends with a visa service, just in case.


(Have a travel dilemma? Write to We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)