How to obtain the necessary entry visas

By Philip Wagenaar

(Second of two parts)

In last month’s column I discussed the necessity of having sufficient blank pages in one’s passport and reported many other items gleaned from the Department of State website. This month I will discuss the various visa services.

Comparing visa service companies

Well, as you may recall from part one of this article, I needed to obtain visas to five countries for a planned cruise for Flory and me. To expedite the process, I went to the Department of State website, which lists Foreign Entry Requirements. Unfortunately, the site is outdated. On a brighter note, it referred me to the appropriate embassies or consulates.

Next, I looked into using a visa service. Google provided a list of names. To rate each company, I scrutinized its accuracy by comparing Chile’s official entry requirements for U.S. citizens at with those recorded on the visa service’s site.

Why Chile? Because when we visited there several years ago we found on arrival (to our consternation) that we had to pay a US$100 cash entry fee at the immigration booth, although we didn’t need a visa.

I omitted the visa services that did not list this requirement.

To rate the meticulousness of the three remaining firms, Zierer Visa Service (ZVS), Travel Document Systems (TDS) and IAG (Inter-american Group, Inc.), I used the official Benin website as my benchmark. Why Benin? Because I had noticed the following discrepancy in the past: while the embassy requires you to fill out only one visa application (with one photo), Zierer’s website specifies two applications and TDS and IAG both list three.

To address the incongruities, I called each of the firms. Here is what I learned.

1. Zierer Visa Service (1625 K St. NW, Ste. 102, Washington, D.C. 20006; call 866/788-1100 or visit

This firm has offices in several cities with approximately 15 employees in each. They hand-carry passports to avoid mistakes. When a passport is mistakenly sent to the wrong jurisdiction (each consulate handles a specific U.S. geographic region), it is forwarded by FedEx to the correct consulate.

When I mentioned the Benin discrepancy, Mr. Gulas, the marketing director at Zierer Visa Service, said that although the Benin website states that only one application is required, the embassy always asks for two.

According to Cruise Specialists in Seattle (206/285-5600), most cruise lines recommend Zierer.

2. Travel Document Systems (call their office at 925 Fifteenth St. NW, Ste. 300, Washington, D.C. 20005, at 800/874-5100 or call their San Francisco office at 888/874-5100 or visit — two offices.

Ms. Letellier, TDS’s marketing director, was unwilling to tell me how the passports were transported from their offices to the appropriate consulates, stating that it was proprietary information.

When I mentioned the Benin discrepancy, Ms. Letellier repeatedly assured me that TDS was a wonderful company. She grudgingly conceded that there might have been an error and promised that a technical person would call me back. When I checked the TDS website the next morning the mistake had been corrected. However, I am still waiting for the technical person to call me back.

3. IAG (1700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Ste. 400, Washington, D.C. 20006; call 866/727-7362 or visit — one office.

As I was unable to contact the marketing director, I talked to her assistant, who was very vague as to how passports were transported to the proper authority.

She informed me that the Benin information on IAG’s website was correct.

All three of the above services accept credit cards, and all allow you to track the progress of your application either online or by calling.

As each firm has dissimilar fees and each consulate charges different amounts, there is no way to compare the costs of obtaining visas.

Additional remarks

1. Note that several countries will allow you to get your visa online.

2. A number of countries require that your U.S. passport be valid at least six months beyond the dates of your trip.

3. Some Middle Eastern and African nations will not issue visas or allow entry if your passport indicates travel to Israel. Consult the National Passport Information Center on obtaining a second passport by calling 877/487-2778 (by “staying on the line when you don’t have a Touch-Tone phone,” you quickly will get to talk to — hurrah — a live operator).

4. As soon as you receive your visa, check it to make sure no mistakes were made.

Happy visa hunting!