Visa-Free Travel and Visas-on-Arrival: Highlighting the Differences

‘visiting’ foreign nations is not always easy. You may need a visa even for a brief stay, often resulting in long queues at embassies and consulates and time wasted obtaining required documentation, such as letters of invitation. If you are lucky however, your passport may allow you to enter a country with a visa-on-arrival, or even visa-free. What is the difference between these two modes of entry?


Foreign travel is dominated by short trips – day, or week-long visits that allow us to get to know a city, or get a flavour of a region or country, before we return to our daily lives. These short visits, whether for tourism, to see family or friends, or as part of our jobs, are what allow us to explore new cultures, encounter people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and survey business opportunities. The ability to ‘visit’ is therefore an asset, and something that can – and often does – enrich our lives.

Yet ‘visiting’ foreign nations is not always easy. You may need a visa even for a brief stay, often resulting in long queues at embassies and consulates and time wasted obtaining required documentation, such as letters of invitation. If you are lucky however, your passport may allow you to enter a country with a visa-on-arrival, or even visa-free. What is the difference between these two modes of entry?

Visas-on-arrival

As the term may suggest, visas-on-arrival are issued when the visitor ‘arrives’ in a country. The process of issuing the visa is initiated, and completed, at the port of entry, where government authorities generally examine the visitor’s passport, collect the relevant visa payment, and ultimately issue the visa. Some countries collect biometrics, including the visitor’s fingerprints.

Like a normal visa, the visa-on-arrival is affixed to the visitor’s passport, which thus must have an adequate number of empty pages. The visa-on-arrival process is intended to be simpler than that of obtaining a visa prior to travelling, as all steps are performed in one location – the port of entry – and the visitor is not required to partake in any formal procedure at the country’s consulate or embassy. Caution is however advised, as some countries may require the visitor to present evidence of a return or onward journey, hotel reservations, and sufficient funds.

Visa-on-arrival facilities are usually available at major ports of entry, such as airports and large ports. If no such facility is available, for example, when crossing a land border, the visitor must ensure he or she has already obtained a regular visa.

Importantly, where visa-on-arrival facilities are set in place, they are generally separate from immigration controls. This means that the officer who receives payment and issues the visa is different from the officer who allows the visitor to cross the border – something that reduces the opportunity for corruption.

Visa-Free

Visa-free travel enables the holder of a valid passport to enter a country without needing to apply for a visa beforehand, and without needing to undergo any further visa attainment procedure upon entering a country. Entry is also free.

This allows visa-free visitors to travel on a whim, without having to pre-plan or collect documentation.
Even when visitors have visa-free travel rights to a country, they must still generally pass through an immigration control facility, where their passports are checked for validity. At this stage, visitors may also receive a passport stamp.

Read also: Visa-Free Travel

Countries like Japan and the United States stamp passports upon entry only, while other countries, like Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, stamp passports both upon entry and upon exit. Some countries, like Hong Kong and Israel, have done away with passport stamps, but provide visitors with landing slips, which generally are not required for departure.

Whether travelling with a visa, using a visa-on-arrival facility, or entering visa-free, visitors must nonetheless be cautious not to overstay their leave of entry. Even visitors entitled to visa-free entry may only remain in a country for a limited time, usually between 15 and 90 days, which is sometimes further limited to within a given period of 180 days or one year. An overstay equates to an immigration offence, which visitors must avoid if they seek to avoid civil or even criminal charges, or lose their future rights to travel easily and safely.