The Airline Visa Trap

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There are a million Visa traps out there, and I am not talking about the credit cards.    I am talking about the airline’s haphazard and overzealous enforcement of other country’s visa and passport requirements.

Honeymoon In Brazil

Six years ago, my wife and I planned an amazing honeymoon in Brazil.    At the time, she was not a US Citizen, but she held a valid passport from her home country that encompassed our dates of travel.    The problem was that Brazilian consulate listed one of the requirements for entry into Brazil as having a passport valid for 90 days beyond your existing travel itinerary.    Due to an unresolved paperwork issue in her home country, we were unable to renew her passport before our trip.   I was very nervous about this requirement, but neither the airline nor Brazilian immigration officials seemed to notice or care.   Once in Brazil, people actually laughed at the notion that the famously casual Brazilians might deny entry over such a technicality.

In retrospect, I realize that things have changed since then, and if anything, we got lucky.     I have read numerous threads on Flyertalk about situations where it is the airline that is actually denying boarding to passengers who have not met the letter of the most onerous entry restrictions.   Countries are now tasking the air carriers with enforcing their entry requirements by imposing massive fines on them when passengers show up at immigration and are denied entry.  Airlines are not willing to take the risk that a particular entry point will decide to enforce a bizarre restriction, even if they have never done so in the past.

Fear Your Ticketing Agent

The financial penalties are so severe, that airline personnel have become hyper-vigilant in attempting to deny boarding to international passengers at their point of departure, long before their connection to their final destination.    The resulting situation in absurd.  If there are approximately 200 nationalities, and an airline is a member of a Global Alliance that serves about 100 different countries, that means that there are up to 20,000 different permutations passport entry requirements for any given itinerary.  Throw in a connecting city or two and the complexity multiplies even further.  It is impossible that each ticketing agent at every airport could be expected to accurately enforce the entry requirements for every passport to every destination.    For example, could the United Express agent in Rock Springs Wyoming really be trusted to accurately determine the entry requirements for a Slovenian national flying to Indonesia, with en-route connections in Japan and Singapore?

Upon our next trip to Brazil, my wife and I encountered just such an occurrence.   At first, our check in proceeded normally.   We were flying American Airlines from Atlanta to Salvador Brazil, via Miami.   The check in agent recognized that her passport was from a country that did not require a visa to visit Brazil.    Later, when our flight to Miami was canceled, the gate agent in Atlanta who attempted to rebook us decided that he knew more about Brazilian entry requirements than our original ticketing agent, or the local Brazilian consulate for that matter.   It was his conclusion that travelers with her nation’s passport could not enter Brazil without a visa.   He told us he was going to deny her boarding to Miami.   When we protested, he then threatened call his supervisor.    We stood our ground and invited him to do so.   He then made a lengthy phone call to someone else who confirmed what we had been saying, that our papers were indeed in order.   Ironically, when we arrived in Salvador, the immigration official who looked at her passport relied a piece of paper stuck to his desk to determine her visa requirements.   If the Brazilian official could not know off the top of his head if my wife needed a visa stamp on her passport, why did the American Airlines gate agent in Atlanta think he had all the answers?

Our situation is not alone, this article at Chris Elliot’s site is about a traveler who actually was denied boarding to China, despite meeting the proper entry requirements.     Because the airline is United, the story is not complete without tales of luggage being lost on the other side of the world, and a refund that never happened.

What You Need To Do

At one time, I purchased tickets to exotic destinations, only to flash my American passport upon arrival.   Those days are long gone.  Do not purchase a ticket to any country without determining all of the visa and  entry requirements.     Many friendly countries like Brazil now require Americans to obtain expensive, difficult, and time consuming visa before travel.   Other countries require that your passport be valid for 3 to 6 months after your scheduled departure.   A country may require your passport have a specific number of blank pages or that you show proof of ticketing beyond that country within a certain period after your arrival.     The only way to know for sure is to check the web site of the consulate in the country for which you hold a passport.    You may even wish to print it out to help you convince the gate agent in Peoria that you have met the requirements for travel to your destination. If you hold multiple passports, be sure to check the entry requirements for each passport.  You may find that one of your passports has significantly fewer restrictions than the other.

If you are threatened with denied boarding, you may need to put up a fight.   Demand to speak to a supervisor immediately.    Present proof that you have met your entry requirements and demand that they verify your compliance with their superiors.

The current state of visa and passport requirements is a ridiculous mess, and airline personnel may be the least qualified to sort it out.  It is up to you as a passenger to do your research and prepare your required documents.   Sadly, your biggest challenge may be getting past the ticketing agent in your home town, not the immigration official at your destination.

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