What should you do if you’re in a country and you overstay a tourist visa? Should you get in touch with local immigration for a visa overstay forgiveness or keep your head down and hope for the best?
These are questions that have confronted many travelers over the years and the answers to them will largely depend on individual choice as well as the country in question.
UPDATED MAY 2020 :
With the recent happenings in Europe and around the world and after receiving so many comments and emails asking for more help and info regarding overstayed visas I've updated the post significantly with a lot more information as well as country specific details which you can find at the end.
Make sure you keep your visa and passport safe (an RFID passport wallet like the one I own is a great idea), and watch for destination specific recommendations regarding Covid 19.
Also, if you have dual citizenship read this post on how to travel with two passports to avoid any problems you may have.
What is a Visa?
Before explaining how to deal with an overstayed visa, let’s start at the very start: what is a visa, anyway? First, no, a visa is not your credit card!
Rather, a visa is simply some kind of document proving authorization for entry to a specific country
It's something like the temporary green card that you get in the US to avoid an unlawful presence status.
For anyone wondering, the word itself comes from the Latin charta visa, which just means “a seen paper”. Throughout history, visas have taken all kinds of different forms, ranging from small stamps to massive, full form letters.
Nowadays, most visas are stickers placed inside your passport by immigration or diplomatic officials.
The image above is a perfect example of a typical, full page sized visa.
However, it’s worth noting that not all visas look like this. As mentioned earlier, some can be nothing more than a small stamp.
Yet just because someone stamps your passport at an airport it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a visa, and certainly does not make you a lawful permanent resident.
For example, most countries will stamp your visa when you enter and exit – but neither of these stamps are visas, they’re just records of your comings and goings. Confusing, right?
Generally, most countries you visit will require a visa. Some of these might be automatically granted on arrival, others might require a small fee on entry, and others still could require extensive application processes before you even leave your home country.
For example, the small Gulf state of Qatar will happily sell you a visa on arrival, and just charge the fee to your credit card.
On the other hand, United States travelers bound for Bolivia can get a visa on arrival, but need a hotel reservation and evidence of solvency.
On the other side of the world, Algeria has somewhat stricter policy, where you’ll need to apply before leaving home, and need supporting documents including a letter from an Algerian endorsing you.
Meanwhile, China also requires US visitors apply for a visa before departure, and failure to do so could mean Chinese officials will pretty much turn you around on arrival.
Yet one country over, US travelers can stay in Japan for up to 90 days without any visa whatsoever!
Put simply, no two countries are the same. Many common tourist destinations do offer visa waiver programs, others will sell visas on arrival, and other countries still will require lengthy application processes ahead of time.
The lesson here is to never assume anything; whatever country you’re visiting you’re going to have to play by their rules, whether you're there with a tourist visa, student visa, or something else.
You might think that the European Union has a single policy on passports and visa requirements but this is unfortunately not the case.
Twenty six members of the EU have signed the Schengen Agreement which allows free movement without passport controls or the requirement for a visa within what is called the Schengen Area.
Ireland and the United Kingdom are the only EU countries outside the Schengen Area, which also includes four countries outside the European Union—Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland (Ireland and the UK have their own common travel area).
What is a Tourist Visa, Specifically?
This brings us to another important question: what is a visitor visa, also known as a tourist visa?
As we’ve already mentioned, visas come in all shapes and sizes. However, they also come with different benefits and immigration law attached to them.
Common categories of visas include work, transit, temporary/ permanent residency, humanitarian/ refugee, and of course, tourism.
Each of these visas has a very different purpose.
For example, a transit visa might only allow a traveler to remain in a country for a very short period of time, such as 24 or 48 hours. A temporary residency visa might allow a much longer stay, but limit a traveler’s ability to work.
Generally speaking, tourist visas give visitors free movement within a country, but are restrictive in terms of work or other activities.
Think of it this way: the host country is effectively offering you the privileged to engage in tourism, and that’s pretty much all.
So, don’t assume you can work (paid or unpaid), do anything political, teach, or participate in any activity in an official capacity.
Some countries are extremely relaxed about their tourist visas, and in reality won’t mind if you do some volunteer work or take up some study during your trip (such as a language course).
On the other hand, other countries can be extremely strict. Again, the point is to remember every country has its own set of rules. Having said that, there are some general trends when it comes to tourist visas.
Most tourist visas (and visa waiver programs) grant travelers somewhere between 30 and 90 days of entry.
It’s also safe to assume you won’t be allowed multiple entry/ exits on the same visa, meaning you’ll have to get a new visa each time you cross an international border.
How Do "They" Know if You Overstay Your Visa?
To put it simply, most of the time authorities don't know exactly who has overstayed a visa and who has not (see this New York Times article on this topic). Immigration authorities usually get this information from airlines, but countries like Spain and USA don't always stamp passports upon entry or exit, so they can't know when you left.
Same thing if you enter by air and leave overland
This can lead to visitors being able to play with their status, but where you are plays a huge roll. Try entering or leaving Gaza without your passport checked.
Valid Reasons for Overstaying a Visa
Most people are law abiding and have perfectly good intentions, but sometimes life has a way of complicating things.
There’s all kinds of reasons why a traveler might overstay a visa, ranging from a missed bus trip to a serious injury, or just plain old complacency.
In other cases, you may not notice that you’re living in a country on a visa overstay for quite some time.
It is normally only when you leave and try to reenter a country that problems arise, usually at passport control.
Turning up at passport control when you’ve overstayed a tourist visa can lead to either a refusal of entry or having to pay a large penalty fee depending on the country you’re visiting. It can also lead to further problems in the future.
For example, overstaying a visa in the US can make it extremely difficult to return.
Likewise, wearing out your welcome in an EU/Schengen Area country might make it difficult to visit other countries within the same bloc.
At the end of the day there are no real valid reasons for overstaying a visa that will get you off the hook just because you mention them, but pregnancy issues, an accident or an assault that results in body harm requiring hospitalization is usually convincing enough, at least for some time.
Seeking political asylum is not in itself a valid reason, but it can delay your departure for some time if you pursue this route.
Visa Overstay Penalty
The penalty for overstaying a visa can have lifelong consequences. In some countries you may face prison (India), huge penalty fees (most countries) or being banned from returning (USA).
What happens at the end of the day though depends mostly on how you fix your situation, and the smallest detail of your behavior will impact the final outcome.
This leads to an often asked question: is overstaying a visa a crime?
Overstaying in the Schengen Area
So what happens if you find yourself in a Schengen Area or EU country saying “I overstayed my tourist visa!” And more importantly, what should you do to avoid problems now and in the future?
The answers will vary from individual to individual and from country to country. It can also depend on how long you have overstayed your tourist visa.
Many travelers from North America and the European Union inadvertently find themselves in countries on an overstayed immigrant visa simply because there is no requirement to obtain a visa before you enter.
It can therefore be very easy to overstay without even realizing that you are doing so.
In other cases, you may not notice that you’re living in a country on an overstayed tourist visa for quite some time. It is normally only when leave and try to reenter a country that problems arise, usually at passport control.
Turning up at passport control when you’ve overstayed on tourist visa usually leads to either
- a refusal of entry or
- having to pay a large penalty fee depending on the country you’re visiting.
It can also lead to further problems if you try to visit that country (USA) or another in the EU/Schengen Area in the future.
Many US travelers end up on an overstayed tourist visas because they don’t realize that you can only be in the Schengen area for 90 out of each 180 days before you need to apply for visa renewal.
Even if you’ve previously remained in a country on an overstayed you may still be allowed reentry if you’ve got a return ticket, a valid reason for entry and the period you overstayed on your last visit wasn’t more than a few weeks.
Having said that, it is obviously still better if you don’t overstay in the first place and if you do overstay apply for visa renewal as soon as you realize that you need to.
Overstaying Outside the European Union
Outside of the European Union, the procedures for dealing with travelers with overstayed tourist visas vary considerably. In some cases, penalties can be minor or pretty much non existent.
In other cases, an overstayed tourist visa can become a nightmare and you need to find a provisional waiver asap. In general, there are three main types of penalties you can expect to encounter if you overstay a tourist visa.
The first is simple deportation, which isn’t a big deal. This is because as mentioned earlier, visa problems typically arise during arrival or departure. So, if you’re already leaving a country, then deportation probably doesn’t sound all that scary, right?
Under most circumstances, it isn’t, though things can get complicated quickly. The biggest question is often who will pay for your flight? This varies a lot depending on the country, but again, there’s a few general rules.
If you get denied entry on arrival, it’s typically the responsibility of your airline to get you off the country’s doorstep. The company might just put you on the next flight home, or charge you an additional fee.
Under most other circumstances, a country will do everything it can to make the deportee pay the cost of their flight home.
If you can’t pay, they’ll attempt to contact your family, and make them pay. When all else fails, it’s possible the country will just buy you a ticket to get you out of their hair, but this shouldn’t be relied on.
In some circumstances, if nobody can pay, then you might face prosecution. In other extreme cases, you might simply be thrown across the closest border, and left to fend for yourself.
This is actually more common than you may think, and even countries like the US have done this to people in some unusual cases.
Other countries might impose fines. These usually aren’t too onerous; for example, fifty pesos ($12) in Argentina.
Similarly in Southeast Asia, the cost of overstaying a visa may be initially just a fine of a few dollars but could be an issue if you want to return to the country in the future.
Many countries might also charge additional fines for every day you overstay.
So, a one day overstay might not be a big deal, but being on an overstayed visa for 10 years could seriously hurt your bank balance and any chance of getting any visa overstay forgiveness document.
Even after you’ve been removed from the country, you might still face penalties down the track.
Many countries will impose future travel restrictions on travelers who have a history of overstaying visas, meaning you might struggle to return in the future.
An overstayed visa can also make it extremely difficult to apply for different visas, such as a work permit or residency.
Arrest and Prison
The highest penalties for visa overstays include arrest and the extreme hardship of prison time. This is extremely unusual for short overstays though, and normally only an issue in the most highly strung of countries like North Korea.
However, extremely long overstays can still be a problem in even the most welcoming of countries.
While an overstay of one or two days might earn you nothing more than an understanding smile at departure, months or years of living illegally in a country will almost certainly land you in a questioning room.
Authorities will want to know what you’ve been doing, and why you’ve overstayed your visa for so long. If you don’t have any good answers, then don’t assume you’ll be let off easy.
Countries like India are known to become a nightmare for long term overstaying visitors, and at some point you may want to contact a law firm to get specific legal advice from an immigration attorney.
The Secret to Obtain a Visa Overstay Forgiveness
Typically, if you do the right thing, nobody will give you any problems.
Under most circumstances, it is only if you’ve overstayed a tourist visa in the past and then have to apply for a pre-entry visa – for example if you want to travel to a country to work or study rather than as a tourist – that you are likely to experience more than routine problems obtaining authorization.
One important point to make is that resolving visa issues can often come down to the discretion of border or diplomatic officials.
So if you are caught overstaying a visa, be polite and patient. Acting reasonably and calmly can go a long way for an adjust status, especially if you’re trying to convince a border official that your overstay was just an honest mistake.
In a nutshell, there is no secret.
So to reiterate, the best advice is simple: check how long your tourist visa allows you to stay in a country (or, if you are visiting the European Union outside the UK and Ireland, in the Schengen Area) and stick to it.
If you’re overstaying for a few days only, you’ll probably be OK. If you know you won’t be returning to the country, you might want to take your chances.
But if you want to stay longer than you had intended in the country you are visiting, it is always much better to apply for a unlawful presence waiver than to remain on an overstayed tourist visa or have to get a visa overstay forgiveness.
That’s the only way to ensure that you won’t be denied entry or encounter other problems on your travels round the world in the future.
Country Specific Recommendations
To further help you out I've created the following sections for some specific countries. This information has been obtained from official government pages, and in some cases I called consulates to get it from a reliable source.
Have you overstayed a tourist visa? What did you do or are you going to do? What happened to you? Share your story with us in the comments section below, ask any question you might have, and please share this post if you liked it!