Since some countries allow people of some nationalities to travel as tourists in their country for a limited period of time and when these people arrive at the airport, they don't have to go through any visa stamping process or strict immigration checks/questioning, how does the country keep track of such people? They might just walk into a country and disappear.

Am asking this from the perspective of a person who has not traveled internationally, and is planning a vacation by myself (instead of going thru a travel agent which might be more expensive) for a week, and logically, the countries which do not require a visa seem the best option since there won't be any hassles. But this lack of paperwork seems too good to be true. At my country when I'm boarding the plane, and at the country I arrive for the vacation, will there be no paperwork at all? Will the airline just check if my passport is valid and allow me to enter/leave both countries as long as I stick to the timeframe?

  • 14
    It might help to know what countries you're describing. Even where there's no "visa on arrival" process, there's usually at least some kind of immigration control where passports are checked, which is basically the same thing (in some countries, visa on arrival is just a fancy way of saying "pay this visitor tax before we let you in"). Either way, you're allowed into the country for a specified period of time and there are legal consequences if you overstay. People can still come in and (try to) disappear whether they have a visa or not. Aug 21, 2016 at 6:59
  • 3
    Are you aware that when arriving in almost all countries, there's always a border control where they ask you questions, regardless of whether you need a visa or not? Aug 21, 2016 at 7:09
  • 2
    One issue you may be unaware of is the airport transit. In most international airports there is a transit area for passengers who aren't entering the country, but are connecting to a flight to another country. Most of the time, visas are not required for such transits. But some countries do require them of certain countries' citizens. You will need to check the transit visa requirements for any country where you might make a flight connection. Aug 21, 2016 at 8:58
  • 3
    And you should do so before booking a flight. It is possible that you could be refused a transit visa. It is also likely that you could be charged extra money to change the flight. Also consider that some countries which allow Indian citizens to enter visa-free can only be reached via countries which require Indian citizens to have airport transit visas (e.g. UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand). Aug 21, 2016 at 9:05
  • 1
    Their spy networks are efficient and supple and not rely on such silly pieces of paper. Aug 22, 2016 at 4:49

4 Answers 4


There are already answers that explain border formalities, but I think the asker's confusion here stems from not really having understood what a visa is and what it's for, so let's take that.

Most fundamentally, a visa is something you apply for in advance. You go to the embassy/consulate of the country you want to visit, or you mail in all your documentation, and then they keep your passport for (up to) several weeks while their bureaucrats make a decision whether you should be allowed to go there, and eventually you get your passport back either with or without a colorful sticker (or, in earlier times, an ink stamp) that says you're permitted to go to such-and-such country in such-and-such period.

(You pay a fee when you apply for a visa, which you won't even get back if they refuse, the point being that it shouldn't be the taxpayers of the destination country who pay for the bureaucracy that processes the applications).

When you actually go there, there will be further questioning and stamping of your passport at the border when you you arrive, as the other answers explain -- how much depends on the country, but unless the country and yours are exceptionally chummy with each other, you would at least get a stamp in your passport saying that you passed through this-or-that border point on such-and-such day. You'll need that stamp later if you need to document to police or other authorities (such as the exit passport control when you leave) how long you've been there.

The purpose of the apply-in-advance must originally have been something about keeping spies and criminals out -- and they're still looking for that, but in practice the most important consideration is that if you come from a poor country and want to go with a rich one, the rich country wants to be really sure you're not going to move there, taking jobs from the locals -- or, worse yet, loafing around on their welfare system's expense. Unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that's not your thing, you won't get a visa.

Visa-free travel comes about when two (usually rich) countries come together and agree, "look, we're both pretty good places to live, so the risk that one of your guys is going to find it attractive to be an illegal immigrant with us (or vice versa) is pretty small. All that visa bureaucracy makes trade and tourism between our countries more difficult, let's just cut it out, okay?" So the two countries agree that holders of each others' passports don't need to get visas before they travel -- but usually they will still be questioned and stamped at the border.

In some countries, such as the UK, visa-free travelers will generally be met with more suspicion at the border because they haven't been pre-cleared (but it's still less hassle than applying for a visa for most travelers). In other places, such as the Schengen countries, all people from third nations in principle get the same screening at the border, and getting a visa is an additional hurdle to clear for citizens of less fortunate countries.

Poor countries don't generally have to fear a flood of economic migrants from rich countries, so when they require visas of travelers from the rich parts of the world, it is either a case of national paranoia or pride (both of which happen in the developed world too), or because country A demands visas of country B's citizens, and country B reasons that "if they make a hassle for our people, we'll make a hassle for theirs too".

Then there's something called visa-on-arrival. In this case one doesn't have to apply in advance, but can just arrive at the border to be questioned and stamped, like in the visa-free case. But you have to fork over money for a "visa fee" before you're let in -- effectively just a tax on arriving travelers from certain countries.

Typically this happens when country B above wants to have their cake and eat it too. They're not really interested in pre-screening country A's citizens, but they do want them to suffer in proportion to how their own citizens suffer when going to A, so they require a visa fee in the same ballpark as that charged by A's consulate. Or, of course, it may simply be a tax, levied because they can.

  • 9
    I beg to differ with "Poor countries don't generally have to fear a flood of economic migrants from rich countries". There's a certain demographic that loves to live like kings as "indefinite tourists" in poor countries off small fortunes that wouldn't stretch very far in their own countries. Often goes hand in hand with sex tourism. Aug 21, 2016 at 17:27
  • 10
    @R..: Yes, but they're bringing their own money from outside and plowing it into the local economy, so generally they're not nearly as unpopular with host governments as migrants-in-search-of-jobs are. Aug 21, 2016 at 19:39
  • 2
    @R..: Often goes hand-in-hand with digital nomadism. Aug 22, 2016 at 4:51
  • 2
    But wait! Indonesia have a FREE visa on arrival. On this case, I suspect a bureaucracy addiction.
    – Madlozoz
    Aug 22, 2016 at 5:36
  • 3
    @Sejanus Because you can't answer a question built on a wrong premise: "How do frogs eat whole lions?" - Answer: "Frogs are much smaller and are not able to eat much bigger predators"
    – Falco
    Aug 22, 2016 at 13:48

The visa on arrival / visa free entry does not mean that you bypass immigration. It just means that you don't need advance permission (what a visa actually is) to enter the country.

It has no relation with stamps or recording the entry of the visa-free person. Each country has their own mechanism of tracking visitors; and if you are visa exempt you are not exempt from such tracking.

The US allows visa-free entry for some nationalities, yet everyone has to go through the immigration officers before entry into the country. In the case of the US, you are given a stamp that details how long you are permitted to stay for that period.

The Schengen zone has similar procedures, where you are given a stamp on arrival and then another on departure (the US has no departure formalities).

Yet another example is Dubai. They have visa-free entry for many countries, and depending on where you are coming from you can either use the biometric lanes; or use the normal immigration lanes. Each person is given a stamp to track their entry and exit.

Of course, if you are citizen of a country you are also entitled to visa-free entry into your country of citizenship. Even these entries and exits are stamped.

Tracking of travelers is very important - it allows jurisdictions to forecast and track tax and other income from travelers, it allows them to do capacity planning for public works and infrastructure, and in some areas it allows them to claim federal benefits.

In short, tracking of visitors has very little to do with visas.

Now, each country keeps a record of who entered and who is overstaying; usually done by recording the person's entry (and/or exit) in a central computer system which is accessible to law enforcement and immigration.

The system isn't foolproof though. People who are entitled for visa-free entry do sometimes overstay. If they are caught (either in-country by law enforcement or on exit from country) they are subject to the immigration laws of the country (this can be anything from a slap-on-the-wrist fine and a promise not to do it again, to a hefty fine and jailing/deportation all the way up to a ban). In almost all cases, the person then loses the visa-free privilege and sometimes they are barred from entry.

  • This is a good answer that explains how the scheme works; can you get to the OP's title question: how do they keep track of the traveller, that part is currently missing from your otherwise good answer.
    – Gayot Fow
    Aug 21, 2016 at 7:18
  • 1
    I was answering the "they don't have to go through any visa stamping process or strict immigration checks/questioning, how does the country keep track of such people? They might just walk into a country and disappear." part, whereas they do go through "visa stamping" although that's really a misnomer as they are just stamped entry. Aug 21, 2016 at 7:24
  • 5
    Most countries do not stamp their own citizens in or out. I know the American do inconsistently but they are an odd case.
    – Calchas
    Aug 21, 2016 at 8:35
  • Some countries do not stamp, but they record the entry / exit electronically. Kuwaiti citizens, need only their id card to enter GCC countries, and thus only an electronic record remains for their stay. Aug 21, 2016 at 9:36
  • 2
    Most EU countries do not record at all AFAIK. If you’re home, well fine. If you’re not … they don’t really care.
    – Jan
    Aug 21, 2016 at 16:19

Countries (or groups of countries with shared open borders, such as Schengen) have different entry requirements depending on their laws, your nationality, the purpose and duration of your visit, and other particulars. Meeting these requirements may require getting a visa in advance, receiving an e-visa online before traveling (or something like an ESTA or eTA which isn't called an e-visa for diplomatic reasons, but basically is one), receiving a visa-on-arrival at the airport, and entry without a visa.

It's important to carefully research the requirements in advance, because there are usually a lot of detailed rules about when they apply. There may be exemptions for people of certain nationalities, special rules for people who want to transit the country (with or without leaving the secure international zone of the airport), different procedures for long visits or those coming to the country to study, to work, etc... Typically, airlines will ensure you meet these requirements before you are allowed to board the plane, but the final decision lies with the authorities of the country concerned.

Whatever requirements apply, when you arrive in virtually every country (except when traveling between countries in one of a handful of areas with open borders), you'll encounter a border checkpoint. An immigration officer will take your passport, maybe ask a few questions, and decide whether to let you in. If you are admitted, he/she will typically stamp your passport with an indication of how long you are allowed to stay, and in most countries, will record your details in their computer system. If you stay beyond the allowed time, or do something like work that you are not permitted to do, you are subject to that country's laws and there may be legal consequences.

In short, it is possible for someone to try to "walk into a country and disappear" whether they have a visa or not. This has nothing to do with whether you needed a visa to enter the country; either way, you have the same opportunity to try to disappear and they have the same opportunity to catch you.

When you go through immigration, there is usually an entry in the country's computer system recording your entrance, and generally your exit. Countries have varying degrees of success catching people residing illegally in their borders, and some countries do have sizable populations of people living there after overstaying, but in general, you can be caught in a number of different ways:

  • When you eventually try to leave, they can match up your exit to your entry. You may be fined or face other consequences depending on local laws.
  • If you have contact with government officials, they may require proof of your legal status in the country, especially if you are stopped by the police.
  • Common actions like getting a hotel room, job, apartment, or bank account may involve showing proof of legal status and/or a report to various government agencies.
  • There may be immigration or police checkpoints inside a country.
  • The authorities may raid places where they believe immigration violators are present, such as an employer alleged to be hiring workers illegally.
  • Someone may report you to the authorities.

Some countries collect fingerprints, photographs, iris scans, or other biometric identifiers at the border to help catch criminals and immigration violators.

At a minimum, there will generally be a record in their database of your overstay, and you may be refused entry if you try to come back to that country in the future, or be required to apply for a visa before you can be readmitted.

  • @GayotFow Thanks, but Burhan Khalid was actually first with an excellent answer, if you want to talk about FGITW. Aug 21, 2016 at 7:33
  • @GayotFow Sunday is a working day in the Middle East; weekends are Friday and Saturday :-) Aug 21, 2016 at 8:26

In addition to the two excellent answers so far, let me point out that some nations will let some foreigners in with just an identity card which has no room for any stamps or visa. That happens if there are friendly relations and a low perceived risk of overstay. That is discrimination, but nations are allowed to do it ...

For citizens of the US or EU, getting a visa is often just a tedious formality if it is necessary at all. For citizens of Middle Eastern or African nations, getting a visa can be much more difficult.

Nations which are popular tourist destinations will have to decide if they want to make it easy to visit or if they hold out for reciprocity in the visa requirements, compare this recent question.

  • 1
    It is not discrimination, as long as all people with that nationality are allowed to make use of the control free entry.
    – Willeke
    Aug 21, 2016 at 10:44
  • 3
    @Willeke, it is discrimination based on nationality. I mentioned that this is legal, but it is still discrimination.
    – o.m.
    Aug 21, 2016 at 10:47
  • 5
    @Willeke: The word "discrimination" is not used in the sense "morally bad", but simply with the neutral core meaning of "treating people differently based on [whatever -- in this case national origin]". And that is certainly what happens in this case. Aug 21, 2016 at 10:47
  • @HenningMakholm That is discrimination, **but** nations are allowed to do it**...**. If o.m. had said that in the meaning you explain, the but would have been not necessary. Additionally, he had already said that the treatment was based in nationality so it was discriminatory (in the sense you use), so he would have been repeating himself needlessly (as in "this towel is soaked in water, and is wet"). o.m. used that term to mean that it was an unethical or inmoral criteria.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 21, 2016 at 21:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .