Important changes to tourist visas – here’s what you need to know

Visa rules that could leave you grounded: The rules are tightening to many destinations – here’s what you need to know

  • The US has now quietly dropped the promise of ‘instant approval’ for an Esta
  • For a tourist visa to China most travellers now need to go for fingerprinting
  • New Zealand has introduced the NZeTA – similar to the American Esta

Every week our Holiday Hero Neil Simpson takes an in-depth look at a brilliant holiday topic, doing all the legwork so you don’t have to. This week, he examines important changes to tourist visas.

Even the most disorganised traveller can play catch-up at the airport, buying everything from sunscreen to foreign currency and travel insurance right up to the departure gate. But leave a visa application to the last minute and you can be turned away at check-in. Worse still, the rules are tightening for many destinations. 

Here are the biggest changes.

Caught napping: Be careful about your paperwork – or risk being stuck, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal

Visa shock one: America

Since 2007, most holidaymakers to the US have travelled visa-free on an Esta, the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation. They cost about £11 and last for two years.

Previously, if you forgot to apply, or didn’t realise your old Esta had expired, you could complete the forms online at the airport and hope to get approved on the spot.

But the US has now quietly dropped the promise of ‘instant approval’ and says you should apply for an Esta at least 72 hours before your departure date.

It’s also asking for more information, including an optional section to list your Facebook social media names. And it’s raising its expectations of visitors. If you’ve been arrested, cautioned or convicted of a crime in the UK, you’re more likely to be pushed off Esta and forced to go to the American Embassy for a visa instead.

Travel tip: Esta application is simple, despite the new rules. So don’t pay a third-party firm to manage your application. Go direct to the official site,

Visa shock two: China

China is a huge draw for tourists but the Beijing government doesn’t rush to hand out visas

China is a huge draw for tourists but the Beijing government doesn’t rush to hand out visas 

China is a huge draw for tourists but the Beijing government doesn’t rush to hand out visas. Tour firms such as Explore! say travellers should start applying no less than eight weeks before departure to be assured of success. The online form takes about an hour to complete, and you need to show a full tour itinerary and must follow specific rules before submitting photos (no smiling, no head tilts). More controversially, most travellers now need to go to one of four visa centres (London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast) for fingerprinting. Visa fees are about £150.

Travel tip: From January, China specialist Wendy Wu Tours has been given permission to offer an experimental e-visa service that avoids the fingerprint requirement. It applies on five specific trips, including an 18-day China Delights tour that costs from £3,290pp.

Visa shock three: New Zealand

Visa-free entry for Britons to New Zealand became a thing of the past in August with the introduction of the NZeTA – the Kiwi equivalent of the American Esta. Visitors have to apply online before travelling, and while same-day approvals are possible, the official advice is to apply at least three days before a trip.

Early travellers say that they completed the form in minutes and the only bad thing was the cost: a £6 online fee plus an International Visitor Levy of about £19 to fund conservation projects.

Travel tip: It’s slightly cheaper to get an NZeTA on the official app rather than online – but either way there’s no need to pay a processing firm for help. Visit

Finally: Visa rules for Russia, India, Egypt, Turkey and others can also be challenging, so allow plenty of time. Get the latest information and links to official application forms at

Put your destination in the search field, click on ‘Travel Advice’ and then ‘Entry Requirements’.


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