Vietnam’s Visa System is a Mess (Here’s How it Actually Works)

November 24, 2017

Vietnam has one of the most confusing tourist visa systems in Southeast Asia. Recent attempts to make things easier have actually only added more complexity.

While most visitors from Western countries can usually just show up and get a visa-on-arrival at the borders of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and many other countries, it’s not always so simple with Vietnam. You may well have to get a pre-approved visa. Your visa options will also depend on whether you’re flying into Vietnam or intending to cross a land border.

If you are planning a route through Southeast Asia then be sure to pay particular attention to the different visa options, and be sure to read the section at the end regarding your arrival date.

Below are all of the tourist visa options for Vietnam as of November 2017. Simply follow the flowchart to find out the best option for you, or read on for all the nitty-gritty details.

Option 1: Visa on Arrival

    • Visas for up to 3 months, single or multi-entry
    • Get pre-approved online, then get stamped at the airport
    • You can ONLY use this if you fly directly into Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Da Nang, or Nha Trang. NOT for land borders!
    • NOT necessary for certain Western passport holders if you’re traveling under 15 days (see option 2)

Getting a visa-on-arrival is the easiest way to get a visa if you are flying into Vietnam.

You have to submit an application online, which then gets approved within a couple of working days. Once approved, you can fly to Vietnam and show your paperwork at the airport at immigration, after which you’ll get your visa stamp in your passport.

You can’t submit your application for this directly to the Vietnam government; instead, you fill out an application online via a recognized 3rd party agency.

Many of these agencies have outdated websites seemingly designed in the 1990s, so it can be difficult to know which one to trust. I’ve personally used Vietnam-Visa.com which has a modern site with a smooth process, and transparent visa information based on your nationality.

The process goes as follows:

First, you submit an application via this agency (I recommend Vietnam-Visa.com). You can choose either a single-entry or multi-entry visa, and go for either 1 month or 3 months. You can the agency a fee for their work (currently between $14 and $33).

Once approved, you fly to Vietnam, you show your papers at airport immigration, and you’ll get stamped. Keep in mind you still have to pay $25 at the border for the visa itself (the service fee you already paid is just a processing fee for the agent).

 

Option 2: Visa exemption

  • Available only to travelers from certain countries
  • Use at any border, i.e. airport or land
  • Single-entry only
  • ONLY for stays of under 15 days (in most cases)
  • After you leave, you can’t re-enter Vietnam for 30 days

The visa exemption program was recently introduced to give tourists from specific countries an easier option for entering Vietnam. It’s a pilot program that might be expanded in the future.

With this option, all you have to do is show up at the border, no prior approval needed. You may be asked to show proof of onward travel, such as your return flight ticket out of Vietnam.

The visa exemption is only available if you have a certain nationality:

Region Countries Maximum stay
Asia Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia 30 days
Philippines 21 days
Japan, South Korea 15 days
Europe Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom 15 days

If your nationality isn’t listed above, you cannot enter on a visa exemption. (List is up-to-date as of November 2017.)

And if you need a longer maximum stay, you should go for a different visa option.

 

Option 3: Regular visa from embassy

  • Visas for up to 3 months, single or multi-entry
  • Use at any border, i.e. airport or land
  • Apply and collect from a Vietnamese embassy (not online)

This is the traditional way of getting a visa for Vietnam.

Check if your home country has a Vietnamese embassy. For example, I’m from the Netherlands, so I can go to the website of the Vietnam embassy in The Hague and make an appointment for a visa application. (At some embassies you may send in your passport and application by post.)

Alternatively, if you are already traveling through Southeast Asia, you could visit the Vietnam embassy in a nearby country. For example, you could get your visa in Vientiane, Laos or in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In these cities, you can often also find 3rd party agencies that will take care of the paperwork on your behalf.

You’ll need 2 passport photos and you’ll also need to fill out an application form. Once approved (this can take a few days) a visa paper will be stapled or glued onto a page in your passport. I once did this in Vientiane and had to wait 4 days for my passport with visa to be delivered.

The cost is either $25 or $50 depending on which type of visa you request.

These are the most flexible visas as they can be single or multi-entry, up to 3 months, and can be used at airports or land borders. Do read the section below regarding entry dates.

 

Option 4: Phú Quốc exemption

  • Up to 30 days, but ONLY for Phu Quoc Island

Sigh… we’re not done yet…

If you ONLY plan to visit Phu Quoc island in Vietnam, you can make use of the Phu Quoc island visa exemption. You can stay for up to 30 days without a visa. All you have to do is either fly directly to Phu Quoc airport or fly to another international airport and directly transfer to Phu Quoc.

Vietnam is trying to develop Phu Quoc as a special tourism zone, with the hopes of one day turning it into a resort island similar to Phuket in Thailand. That’s why it has a special visa.

You can’t travel anywhere else in Vietnam when using this exemption.

 

Important: check your arrival date!

One last thing: make sure you consider your arrival date carefully!

Your visa does NOT start from the date you enter Vietnam. It starts from the date you specify in your application.

This is not such a big deal if you’re going on a holiday only to Vietnam, but it’s a real pain in the butt for backpackers who are traveling around the region and who like to improvise instead of planning everything in advance.

Example: suppose you have a 30-day Vietnam visa with a start date of February 1. Except… you’re having so much fun traveling in Laos that you change your plans and stay in Laos for a while longer. You end up crossing the border to Vietnam only by February 15. This means you now only have 15 days left on your Vietnam visa, NOT 30 days.

If you are traveling long-term and like to have some flexibility then be sure to pick your entry date wisely, OR pick up a visa from an embassy while you’re traveling, OR get a 3-month visa so you have a generous window within which you can enter Vietnam.

P.S. Don’t miss my tips for what to see and do in Vietnam.

Header photo credit: dcgreer (license)

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2 comments

  1. Olivia Reply December 10, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Hi! This is so helpful. I am from the UK is it possible to do Vietnam in 15 for option 3, or do you recommend longer? I am doing the full SE Asia tour so am a bit cautious of selecting dates. And would I need a flight in, and then a flight out for proof or would bus be OK?

    Sorry for the million questions, thank you!

    Ps. your website is amazing!

    • Marek Reply December 11, 2017 at 11:14 am

      Hey Olivia! A bus ticket out should work just fine. It’s not that common for them to ask about your onward travel, but you could book something just to be safe.

      15 days for Vietnam is not a huge amount. If you want to stick to 2 weeks then I’d maybe recommend focusing only on northern Vietnam and the middle bits around Hoi An and Hue. If you want to do the whole thing top to bottom then it’s probably better to have more time. 🙂

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