Schengen visa in the passport.

Demystifying Visas and Residency: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Getting Legal Status in a Foreign Country

When American Dana Saxon made the decision to move from the Netherlands to the UK,  she humorously documented her efforts to get the appropriate legal status. She quite astutely noted the typical ways to establish legal residency  which included falling in love and getting married, going back to school  or just being absolutely exceptional.  While she took a tongue-in-cheek approach to highlight the complicated hassle of gaining a visa, the points were still valid.

One of the necessary aspects of crossing borders is knowing and understanding the requirements to be legal in a country.  If you have ever traveled or tried to figure out legal requirements. It’s not easy. The type of passport you have, the reasons for establishing in a particular country and the state of your finances all have a role to play.  The less familiar you are with a country and their way of doing business, and it can get downright complicated.

To make things a bit easier, we will discuss what a travel visa is, the general types that are available, and what it means to have legal residency. 

What is a visa?

A travel visa is an official document that allows you to enter a country for a specific purpose, such as tourism, business, or study. It essentially grants you as a visitor the opportunity to enter the country legally for a specific duration of time. The length of time you can use it can depend on various factors including the type of visa you have been issued and your nationality. 

Some countries may grant a visa on arrival, meaning you are issued a visa when you enter the country and do not have one prior to your arrival.  Some countries may issue an e-visa or online visa, meaning the visa may be issued online after following an application process.  Generally speaking, visas on arrival and e-visa are often issued for tourism purposes. 

Closeup of blank passport, Canadian visa and residency immigration document and toy plane on a table.
Image: iStock

What are the most common types of visas?

There are a variety of visas available for global travelers, depending on the purpose of travel. Let’s get an overview of some of the most common visas and use this list to help you determine what types may make sense for you.  

  • Business visas are for those traveling for work or to conduct business meetings typically and are not employed by the foreign country but by the traveler’s home country.

  • Work visas are for those seeking to take up employment in a foreign country.

  • Tourist visas are for those traveling for leisure or to visit family and friends. 

  • Student visas are for those traveling to study at a foreign university for a certain amount of time. 

  • Exchange visas which are for those traveling to participate in a cultural exchange program. 

  • Medical visas which allow the traveler to enter the country for medical services they are seeking. 

  • Digital Nomad visas are for people who like to travel outside their own permanent country while working digitally, working remotely for themselves or an employer. 

  • Family reunification visas allow only immediate family members to join their loved one who resides in a foreign country.

  • Investment visas are for investors who seek to invest in a foreign country in such a way as to benefit the economy of that country. Improvements to the country through the investment could create capital and jobs for that nation. 

How do I prepare for the application process?

Learn the immigration process.  Review online the official process of relocating to your desired country.  By official, this means identifying the government offices that handle this type of business in your host country. You also should consult with the local consulate or embassy of the country you are planning to move to for further information. 

If you are doing this process on your own and have a complicated situation, you certainly can hire someone to navigate the process, such as a immigration attorney. However, you will need to do your diligent research to find a trusted professional who knows and understands the immigration process for the country you are moving to.  

Gather your documents. You will need to ensure you have the required documentation, such as a passport, birth certificate, and proof of travel insurance, photos, invitation letters and whatever else your particular visa will require. 

Submit your application and pay the required fees. It will take some time to process your visa and depending on the country and type it could potentially take up to several months. As a result, it is recommended to prepare ahead of time. In some cases emergency visas are granted. 

What about legal residency?

We’ve talked about visas but what does it mean to be a legal resident? Becoming a legal resident is for individuals who seek to live in a location on a more long-term to permanent basis. Depending on your situation and circumstances, it may make more sense to establish a residency. Assuming your eligibility, it might be cheaper to become a resident than to pay frequent visa fees to remain in a country. 

Some common benefits of residency include the ability to apply for citizenship, access to social services, and purchase property. Many seek a new residency for a better quality of life. Residency in a foreign country can be a great way to experience a new culture and a new way of life, and to make a new home in a country that you love.

Keep in mind that residency is often a lengthier process than obtaining a visa and usually requires time spent living in the country prior to applying. Each country has its own unique set of requirements. Some countries are more residency friendly while others are more difficult to obtain residency status.

If you are thinking about residency, think about this.

It’s important to do your research and be prepared before applying for residency in a foreign country. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • Make sure you meet the country’s requirements for residency, which may include having a certain amount of money in savings, a job offer, or being married to a citizen.


  • Learn about the country’s medical system and what types of insurance are available.


  • Consider whether you’ll be able to speak the language of the country you’re moving to. If not, you may want to learn some basics before you go.


  • How long must you stay? What are the physical presence requirements to meet residency.


  • Research housing options in the area you’ll be living in and whether you’ll need to live in a specific area in order to be close to your job or school.


  • Check into banking and how easy or hard it will be to set up a bank account in that country.


  • Familiarize yourself with the culture of the country you’ll be living in. This may include learning about the customs and traditions, as well as the food and the climate.

Once you have a good understanding of the requirements, it is important to start the application process as early as possible to give yourself plenty of time to gather all of the necessary documentation. Make sure you’re familiar with the visa requirements of your destination country and know what you’ll need in order to stay there legally. Once you have all the paperwork in order, you’ll get a key piece of your moving abroad process done.

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