A trip to Turkey almost ruined by the wrong visa advice

by Janice Hough on July 31, 2012


Friends can be a great source of travel information. However, some of it is wrong.

The traveler that inspired this post is no rookie. He regularly flies overseas, but he had never been to Istanbul. We booked an itinerary back in May from San Francisco for July travel. His British passport and green card were in order; it should have been a comparatively simple trip.

Except that, as the trip approached, a friend mentioned something about perhaps needing a visa. Technically, American and British travelers (among others) do need visas for Turkey. But for a stay of less than 90 days (at the time of writing this post) those visas are available upon arrival for a relatively low charge (currently UK£10, €15 or US$20).

Moreover, the visas don’t even need a picture, or any paperwork in advance. In fact, when I visited Turkey two years ago, it was a nearly instant procedure — two of the people in front of us in the customs line didn’t realize they needed one, and were cheerfully sent to the visa window just to the side. The guy checking passports smiled approvingly at our stamps and said, “Happens all the time.”

In retrospect, what my client should have done was to contact our agency or researched online, had he booked himself. But he called his company’s preferred visa service, which said they could do it by sending his passport to Washington, D.C. Of course, visas can be obtained in advance, but there’s really no point.

This generated one big question — WHY didn’t the visa service ask, “Uh, why do you want to spend a lot of money to get the visa in advance anyway?” But they did not, either because of greed or stupidity, or they had some other unknown reason.

In any case, the traveler sent off his passport to the visa service, which forwarded it to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, where the processing was delayed. (Maybe they were surprised by the request and wondered if something was up?) In any case, despite pleas from the service and the traveler, the Turkish officials held onto his passport until it was too late for them to get it back to him in San Francisco in time for his flight.

He did finally get his passport a day after he was scheduled to travel and made the trip, albeit at a much higher airfare. And he got his visa at the Istanbul airport with no problem.

Foreign travel requirements do change. In general, it is better to be safe than sorry. But, sending a passport out of the area always has some risk, especially when it is close to departure.

If you’re not sure about visa issues, ask your travel agent if they have access to current rules (a “Timatic” system is what many agents use), or call the consulate/embassy in question. In general, visa services have correct information as well, but as this episode illustrated, you may need to ask specifically what is required.

And if double-checking seems like too much work, remember: it’s a lot less work than showing up without a needed visa.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by Greenwich Photography

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent lesson.

    Jet planes, well designed airports for swift arrivals and departure, and easy access to tickets have convinced consumers that international travel is as easy as pressing the buttons on the microwave.
    Airlines, visa agencies and travel agents are not the absolute arbiters of foreign entry rules. Only the country in which you want to be a guest can tell you its definitive rules.

  • AirlineEmployee

    one word — GOOGLE.

  • Anonymous

    Many seasoned travelers will get a visa in advance, even if offered on arrival, to facilitate faster entry. It’s not up to us to judge nor is it the job of the visa service to ask if a customer really needs their service.

    Would an airline tell someone looking for a flight that there was a cheaper flight on a competitor? Would a travel agent turn away a hotel booking because the hotel was running a special only available at the hotel?

  • James Penrose

    If someone is not intelligent enough to check a country’s website or call their Embassy to determine visa requirements first as opposed to consulting a visa service that makes a ton of money off this sort of thing, he or she probably should not be allowed without an escort on something as tricky as an airplane as they may hurt themselves or someone else or simply fail to comprehend the use of the toilets.

    Unbelievable.

  • Anonymous

    Delta has a DIY Timatic site:
    http://www.delta.com/planning_reservations/plan_flight/international_travel_information/visa_passport_information/

    Anyway, Turkey offers VISA UPON ARRIVAL for 20 bucks.

  • DCTA

    As the writer notes above.

  • dcta

    However, I would like to note that Timatic – run by the airlines – is probably the most up to date. It protects the airlines from paying very high fines – for instance, if a passenger is boarded to China who does not have the appropriate visa on landing, s/he does not enter the country and the airline pays a very high fine. You’d better believe they are up to date on their info.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t read Janice provide a link to timatic. You and I have it on our GDS, but where would the general public find it for free?

  • Anonymous

    Timatic was designed for airlines and their agencies, not consumers, so the airlines do not get fined by countries for transporting paxs without proper documentations.

  • Anonymous

    This is about a consumer. Which would you show to an immigration officer upon request to enter, a printed “Timatic” listing or the printed regulation from the country’s web site? Second-hand information by definition is once removed from the source.

    Trust friends and Timatic AYOR.

  • Anonymous

    And much harder for non-American or European consumers.

  • dcta

    Funny! We must’ve been typing at the same time!

  • dcta

    NEITHER. The consumer/passenger is not required nor advised to carry that documentation. You would show the immigration officer your visa if it is required – it will go like this: “Where is your visa?” BUT honestly, the airline will have asked you for it already as you check in for an international flight BECAUSE THEY DON’T WANT TO BE FINED.

  • dcta

    Very easy to find the timatic info for non-American consumers and resident aliens of the US.

  • Anonymous

    Huh??? Of course you carry the documentation as required and itemized at the country’s embassy website. You can also carry the requirements as listed there. Who advises people NOT to carry a country’s requirements???

    Airlines have been known to be ignorant about visa-free transit requirements for specific ports of entry. In some countries they vary from city to city.
    I trust airlines with immigration information as much as I trust them to be on time. Trust only what you can verify personally. Otherwise your trust is misplaced.

  • YYZ

    http://www.visahq.com Need info…go to their site, get the info you need….do your own legwork and don’t bother with the agencies!

  • http://www.facebook.com/glenbrooktravel Chris Silva

    Interesting because cruise lines debarking from Istanbul include the charge for a visa for each passenger, not for those embarking in Turkey.

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