E-visas: what are they and how do they work?

A visa is an authorization for the holder to travel to the issuing country, where local immigration authorities decide whether to allow the traveller to enter. E-visas have grown more popular as more and more countries adopt them. But what is an e-visa and how does it differ from other visas that travellers may need to enter a foreign country?

Features of a traditional visa

Historically, the most common way of obtaining a visa was for the applicant (the traveller) to apply for a visa from the destination country’s local diplomatic office—its embassy or consulate—before the applicant left home. The application process sometimes requires an interview and the submission of paper copies of supporting documents: travel tickets, bank statements, accommodation bookings, proof of health insurance, etc. The applicant also submits their original travel documents (passport), which the diplomatic office retains until it decides whether to grant the visa. If the visa is granted, it is attached to the applicant’s passport and the passport is returned to the applicant. Applicants sometimes hire a visa service company to arrange the logistical aspects of the application process, such as delivering the applicant’s passport and documents to the diplomatic office. Applying for a visa this way can be cumbersome and time-consuming.

Features of a visa on arrival

In the case of countries that offer a visa on arrival, the applicant may travel to the destination country and apply for a visa from the immigration authorities upon arriving at the airport or land border. Here it is imperative that the applicant be familiar with any restrictions associated with this process, as a destination country may not offer a visa on arrival for every type of traveller or for all lengths of stay. The country may, for example, offer only tourist or transit visas on arrival, but not business visas. It may also restrict visas on arrival to short stays, or to travellers of certain nationalities. The benefits of a visa on arrival are that it need not be obtained in advance and generally involves simpler logistics and lower costs.

Features of an e-visa

An e-visa is a paperless version of a traditional visa.

The application for an e-visa takes place virtually. The applicant completes an online form on which they indicate their identity and the purpose and length of their stay. The applicant also submits copies of their supporting documents online.

Some countries limit e-visas to applicants from certain nationalities, especially during the trial phase of their e-visa program. For example, South Africa introduced an e-visa in February 2022 and made it available to applicants from 14 countries, half of which are in Africa.

24 African countries now offer travellers the option of an e-visa, up from nine countries in 2016. Two countries introduced an e-visa over the past year, and others are reportedly in development. The e-visa portals of two more countries, included in earlier versions of the AVOI, remained offline during this year’s reporting period and are not included in the totals here.

"Travelers have told us that barriers to travel remain. Countries with complex visa procedures are losing the economic benefits that these travelers bring. Where countries have removed visa requirements, tourism and travel economies have thrived. And for countries requiring certain categories of travelers to get visas, taking advantage of traveler willingness to use online processes and share information in advance would be a win-win solution."

Nick Careen, Senior Vice President for Operations, Safety and Security International Air Transport Association

Benefits and best practices

E-visas benefit travellers in several ways:

  • The applicant applies for an e-visa online, from their office, their home, or another place convenient to them. This saves time and energy, and in the case of a health crisis (like the COVID pandemic), is safer for everyone.
  • Because e-visas are issued or denied before the applicant travels, they reduce the risk of the applicant travelling to a country only to be turned back. This takes some of the anxiety out of the visa application process.
  • The applicant need not leave their passport with the destination country’s diplomatic office as part of their application. This allows the applicant to travel while waiting for their application to be processed, and reduces the risk that their passport will be lost.

For the issuing country, e-visas set the stage for capturing and storing travellers’ information more efficiently and communicating decisions about visas online. This dispenses consular staff from scheduling interviews, vetting and recording travellers’ data, printing forms and visas, and taking care of other logistics. E-visas are particularly useful for countries that have fewer diplomatic missions abroad. Also, because applicants apply for an e-visa online, e-visas allow countries to query travellers’ information electronically through a national database.

For e-visas to function well, the issuing authorities must create a platform that encrypts applicants’ payment information. They must also address concerns about document forgery, constraints with information and communications infrastructure, and the inability to collect biometric data remotely. Some of these concerns can be addressed by developing close working partnerships with airlines (airline staff can be tasked with cross-checking travellers’ documentation) and by limiting the payment of fees to bank cards, which have usually been verified by a bank.

An effective e-visa system enhances security, facilitates access to travel, and greatly enhances the efficiency of the visa application process.

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