What is a Transit Visa?

A transit visa is a document showing a traveler has permission to pass through a country—but not to stay there.

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Transit visas often come up when a traveler’s itinerary includes a layover in another country on the way to their final destination. The traveler won’t leave the airport but still needs permission to be there during the layover.

In the United States, for instance, foreign citizens traveling through the US to get to another country typically must have a transit visa. For US citizens, a transit visa may be required for connecting in Russia and China, among other places. 

Which countries need a transit visa? Do I need a transit visa? Do I need a visa for connecting flights?

Visa rules are complex, and they vary quite a bit by a number of factors, including:

  • the country you’re visiting
  • which country you’re a citizen of
  • how long you’re staying

For example, if the layover is less than 24 hours, and the traveler never leaves the airport, a transit visa may not be needed in some countries while others still require it. 

A basic rule of thumb is that if the country you’re traveling through does not require citizens of your country to have a visa to visit for a longer period, it won’t require you to have a visa to transit through. 

However, if the country you’re traveling through does require citizens of your country to have a visa to visit for a longer period, it may or may not require you to obtain a visa to transit through. Additionally, while some countries allow you to obtain a visa upon arrival, others require that you apply for and receive the visa before you arrive in the country. 

Here are just a few examples of transit visa requirements:

  • The Schengen Area in Europe has a general list of countries whose citizens need a transit visa, though many Schengen countries have specific additions to that list. US citizens do not need a visa to visit or transit through countries in the Schengen zone. 
  • Russia has its own list of waivers for countries whose citizens don’t need to have a transit visa. US citizens do need a visa for traveling in or transiting through Russia. 
  • The transit visa requirements in China change depending not only on how long you’re staying and where you’re flying from but also what airport in China you’re landing in. US citizens generally need a visa for staying in China, but there are a host of exceptions for transiting, and even extending transiting depending on the above factors. For example, US citizens transiting through China may be eligible for a 24-hour Transit Visa Exemption that allows them to not only transit through China but also to leave the airport and go exploring without needing a visa. They may be eligible for a 72-hour Transit Visa Exemption but only if they are entering the country through specific cities. And there’s also a 144-hour Transit Visit Exemption, but the list of cities you can enter through is even more limited. 
  • In the United States, the list of countries whose citizens don’t need a transit visa (or any visa) is filed under the “Visa Waiver Program.”

The best way to figure out whether you’ll need a transit visa is to check with the consulate or embassy of the country you’ll be traveling through. The US State Department also lists requirements for US citizens traveling abroad. 

And remember, in some cases, a transit visa is only good for transiting through the airport. If you have a long layover and want to spend some time outside the airport, you may need a different visa.

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Last updated Jan 10, 2024