Now that you have a better idea of where to take advantage of a stopover, it’s time to talk about the unfun part. How to get out.
A stopover or layover can be a quick and dirty loophole for touring a city that isn’t technically part of your itinerary. But in order to get past immigration and start your mini-vacay, a transit visa may be in order depending on the country’s rules.
Transit visas are essentially tourists visas for persons in transit through one country to another but have much tighter time restrictions. Essentially they allow flyers with an extended layover period to exit the airport and legally visit the country without having to purchase a tourist visa—which can be more expensive or complicated—for the stopover country. Umm, hell yes.
However, not all places require transit visas and there is no streamlined process to figure whether you will need to get one, short of jumping on Wikivoyage. According to Immihelp, some countries will only issue transit visas for stops over 24 hours, while others, such as Singapore, could permit them for stops as short as four hours (though you can get past that with Changi’s tour program).
Oftentimes, if a transit visa is required, it can be issued at the county’s embassy, or in some cases at the airport. Yep, that’s right. Several cities have places in the airport where you can attain a transit visa right there between flights. Emirates, for instance, says this can be done in Dubai. That’s convenience.
Another important thing to keep in mind is to read closely when checking the visa requirements. I was reading up on France’s policies and noticed what they refer to as a transit visa is simply a visa to roam the international wing of the Paris airport. The French consulate in San Francisco makes it clear that a transit visa will not grant you access to the city – to do that one would need what they refer to as a “short stay visa.” The subtle difference in visa terminology could have cost me that picture of the Eiffel Tower!
Here are more specific examples for context. TripAdvisor explains the China’s policy on transit tourism for layovers under 24 hours:
Transit passengers can apply for permission to leave the airport upon arrival at immigration control and may take advantage of a longer layover to do a little sightseeing. A special stopover permit will be stamped in your passport to allow this provided you have documentary evidence of your onward flight arrangements for inspection. There are currently no fees charged for this.
China also has a special visa-free program for those traveling with a stopover under 72 hours as well. It works in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Kunming and Xi'an, and you can book a hotel and travel the city just as you would if it were any other travel destination. But even then, there’s some extra rules for the special loophole: passengers must arrive and depart from the same airport, except in the case of Shanghai.
The other thing? Try not to be too ambitious with the short trip. The last thing you want to do is miss a chance to see something else, like your next flight.