Getting a visa can be a thicket of red tape--or as easy as pie. Whether you should hire someone or do it yourself depends on where you're going.
DIY Do-it-yourself. Visas are easy to get on your own.
$ Pay somebody. Save time and frustration by hiring some expert help.
The easiest and cheapest method is applying online for an Electronic Travel Authority, a stampless visa ($17, eta.immi.gov.au). After completing a form that requires your passport details and a credit card, you can be approved in 30 seconds. You can also apply for an ETA in person at the embassy for free. Securing a visa by regular mail from the Washington, D.C., embassy is possible (austemb.org), but it costs $70 and takes two weeks.
If you want help The Australian government doesn't charge for visas arranged through expediters or travel agents, so all you'll have to pay is the company's fee. (PassportVisasExpress.com charges $20 for two-day processing.) Qantas agents can get you an electronic visa within 15 minutes for $25. Tour operators often handle visas, and some charge for the service. Newmans South Pacific Vacations will deduct its $25 processing fee if you take care of the visa yourself.
Visas cost $100, and it's worth it to hire a specialist (see below). Travel Document Systems' three- to seven-day service is $45; PassportVisasExpress.com charges $59 for seven-day processing. Brazil tacks on a $10 surcharge for visas handled by third parties.
To save money The rules for doing your own paperwork depend on where you live (brasilemb.org). To get a visa from the consulates in San Francisco or New York, you must apply in person or pay an extra $10 if a third party appears for you. In San Francisco, visas are typically processed in five business days and can be sent to you via a U.S. Postal Service prepaid envelope, so bring one with you. In New York, visas are usually ready in 24 hours but must be picked up by someone. If you live near Chicago or D.C., you can apply by mail to those consulates. There's a $10 handling fee; allow at least three weeks. Most Brazilian consulates only accept U.S.P.S. money orders. And if you apply by mail, most require you to use U.S.P.S. Express Mail.
Specialists charge $45-$55 on top of the $100 consular fee (up from $50 as of August 1) to get you a visa in about four days. If you book a package, the operator will take care of your application for $20-$30, shipping included.
To save money Apply in person or send a third party to the embassy in D.C., or the consulates in Chicago, Houston, L.A., New York City, or San Francisco (china-embassy.org). There's no option to apply by mail, but visas will be mailed back to you if you supply a prepaid envelope. You should allow at least four business days for regular processing, or add an extra $30 for same-day service. Cashier's checks, money orders, and cash are OK.
U.S. passport holders can pay $15 for a visa at the Cairo airport. Stop by the visa-payment booth before getting in line for immigration and customs.
To apply in advance You can apply by mail to an Egyptian consulate; allow a week or more for processing (egyptembassy.net). You can also go to the New York consulate and get a visa that day; the San Francisco one needs at least 24 hours for processing. Some consulates only take money orders and certified or cashier's checks. A visa specialist can get a visa in three days starting at $45.
To save time Travelers with Foreign Independent Tours and Misr Travel can pay an extra $20-$25 to have a staffer meet them at the Cairo airport with a prepaid visa sticker. That way, they can go directly to immigration.
Beware the 15-day transit visa: It only costs $30, but the countdown begins the moment the consulate stamps the visa. Instead, opt for the $60, six-month tourist visa. If you're booking your trip through a tour operator or travel agent, ask them to deal with the visa. Many will do it for free--all you have to pay is the fee (with a cashier's or certified check or a money order) and fill out the forms, which they can help with. The process takes about a week. Getting a visa from a consulate yourself via mail also takes about a week.
To save time Apply before 12:30 P.M. at any of the five consulates in the U.S. (indianembassy.org), and you can get a visa that afternoon. Cash, money orders, and certified or cashier's checks only.
If you want help Compare expediters' prices. PassportVisasExpress.com charges $59 (seven days), while Zierer Visa Service asks $55 (10 days).
Get a visa for $50 (U.S. cash only) at the airport upon arrival. Forms are available at the airport.
To apply in advance If you're mailing your paperwork, allow at least seven days--and up to 16 days from May through August. It's possible to get a visa within a day if you apply in person and pay a $10 rush fee at the consulates in New York and L.A. or the embassy in D.C. (kenyaembassy.com). Cashier's checks and money orders only.
If you want help Expediters charge from $39 for seven-day processing, and $55 or so for four-day service.
Beyond the $100 fee, tourist visas require proof of a Russia-based sponsor (often a tour operator). Expect to pay $45-$55 for assistance if your trip is booked through the operator, and more if you arranged your trip some other way. Alternately, Travel Document Systems charges $45 for 10-day processing. If you need a visa sooner, the fees go up, and the consulate tacks on charges: $50 for three- to five-day processing, $100 for next-day service, or $200 if you require same-day turnaround.
To save money You still need to show that you have a sponsor--a hotel in Russia will do. Your hotel should have the standard tourist confirmation document that you need to submit with your applications. You'll need a confirmation document for each place you stay. Apply in person or by mail through a consulate, and be sure to include a prepaid return envelope; payment must be through cashier's check or money order (russianembassy.org). You should allow 6 to 10 business days for processing.
Pay $20 at the Istanbul airport visa booth before going to immigration.
To apply in advance Visas processed by mail cost $9 more and can take three weeks (turkishembassy.org). Consulates accept money orders and cashier's checks by mail, and cash in person. You used to be able to apply online for $29, but the service is down and no one knows when it'll be operating again.
If you want helpPassportVisasExpress.com charges $39 for two-day service.
The prices and policies vary by consulate, and you need not apply via your regional office (vietnamembassy-usa.org). The San Francisco consulate charges $45 for three-day processing and $65 for next-day service. Others ask more--four-day service from New York, for example, is $105. For D.C., include a prepaid U.S.P.S. Express Mail envelope.
If you want helpPassportVisasExpress.com charges $89 for four-day service; Travel Document Systems charges $45 (7 to 10 days). There's also the somewhat complicated option of asking a travel agent or tour operator to get an approval letter from the immigration department in Hanoi. Through Sinhcafe Travel, for example, you pay $30, get your letter in a week or so, and then bring the letter and $25 more to the airport.