A: It's permission to enter a country, usually recorded as a stamp or sticker in your passport.
Q: Do you always need a visa to visit a foreign country?
A: No, not always, especially if you're a tourist. For instance, many Western European countries essentially just wave in U.S. citizens. Or at least they have been doing that
Q: How do I know if I need one?
A: You go to the State Department's website and search for the country or countries you're going to visit: www.lat.ms/countryspecific.
Q: What if I do need a visa?
A: Depending on the country, you may need to go to the embassy or consulate (or mail your passport to that embassy or consulate or use an online application) or ask a visa service to handle it.
Q: But why does, say, China make me get a visa?
A: The short answer is visa reciprocity.
Here’s how the State Department’s website explains it: “When a foreign government imposes fees on U.S. citizens for certain types of visas, the United States will impose a reciprocal fee on citizens of that country/area of authority for similar types of visas.”
Q: OK, up until now, Americans didn't have to have a visa to travel to France, for instance. Could that change?
A: It could. Whether it will depends on whether the U.S. and Europe can come to an agreement.
Q: What's that about?
A: Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Poland and Cyprus let U.S. tourists visit their countries without a visa. But the U.S. asks that citizens from those countries obtain a visa before visiting the U.S.
Q: Isn't that a little unfair?
A: Depends on whom you ask. The U.S. State Department says those five countries have not met the standards for visa-free travel.
But the European Union says the U.S. has not made progress in lifting the visa requirement. Talks are continuing.
Q: If this isn't resolved, I'd have to get a visa for Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Croatia and Cyprus?
A: Yes. But wait. There's more.
If the U.S. does not change its policy concerning those five countries, the European Union may change its mind about allowing U.S. citizens to move freely — that is, without a visa — among its 28 countries. (Not every European nation is an EU member.)
Saber-rattling? Could be. But as the EU points out, this has been dragging on for three years. Some movement is expected by the end of June.
Q: Now what?
A: There is little you can do to affect the outcome. If Europe is on your vacation radar, this might be the time to make friends with a visa service, just in case.
(Have a travel dilemma? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)