The internet is full of blog posts and videos about doing a visa-run. So why I’m also writing one? Because people keep asking on Facebook how to do a visa-run. Companies advertise to offer a fully serviced trip to the border for 30 dollars. I only spend 5 dollars on my visa-runs. In the last years, I have done visa-runs to Cambodia, Laos, Europe, and Taiwan.
The organized visa-runs are on a fixed day in the week. Mostly on a Saturday. What if my visa expires on Friday? Then I’m one day too late to renew it. What if I go on an organized visa-run and they cancel it because there were not enough applicants? So always prepare yourself that you have to perform visa-runs on your own.
I have decided to write a blog post with my experience. How to do it alone on any day. Why on a budget? Because I know how to do a visa-run. I don’t need a tour guide. So I want to share this information with my readers.
To keep this post organized, I will mainly focus on the tourist visa. I won’t discuss the e-visa. First, because I have none experiences with e-visa. Second, people say that after applying for an e-visa you can’t do a visa-run to renew your visa anymore.
In this post, I mainly focus on visa-runs from Ho Chi Minh City to the Moc Bai border. But I will also share my experiences on my trips to other countries for visa-runs.
What is a visa-run?
Let’s start with the question “What is a visa-run”? To visit Vietnam, you need to have a VISA. This is a sticker in your passport which grants you access to Vietnam. It’s only valid for an amount of time. Leave Vietnam before the visa expires. But if you want to extend your stay in Vietnam, you can renew your Visa. To make this possible, leave Vietnam and reenter with a new visa. Some people do this as quick as possible. They leave Vietnam only for ten minutes to reapply for a new visa. So that’s why it has the name visa-run. You make a run for it.
How to get a visa?
You have two ways to get that visa sticker in your passport. The first way is to visit the Vietnamese embassy in another country. This will take some time. Travel to the city where the embassy is established. The visa will cost around 75 dollars. Some embassies have short time-windows when they do visa applications. For example, in the Netherlands, the embassy is only doing visas in the afternoon. The advantage of having a visa sticker ready in your passport is that it won’t take extra time at the Vietnamese border. The second method is getting an invitation letter. That’s the method I will focus on in this blog post.
Step 1. Get an invitation letter.
The invitation letter is an official document in which the Vietnamese government is inviting you to come to Vietnam. You can get this document almost everywhere. When I’m outside of Vietnam and I will fly to an international airport in Vietnam, I will use the website Visumforvietnam to order an invitation letter. After a few days, I will receive the invitation letter in my e-mail. I can pay with my credit card, PayPal, or with iDeal. The second method I use is to visit my visa agent in Vietnam. I give them my order in a chat message. A few days later I can pick up the invitation letter from their office. I can pay them in cash with Dongs or with Dollars. This cost 20 dollars.
Focus. This is important information. If you are doing a run to a land border, you need to give the name of the border crossing to your visa agent. They will print the name in the invitation letter. You can’t take another border crossing than the one listed in your invitation letter.
You can apply for four different visas
- One month – Single entry
- One month – multiple entries
- Three months – single entry
- Three months – Multiple entries
Multiple entries visa means you can leave Vietnam and come back on the same visa. A single entry visa will lose it valid when you leave the country. If you already know you won’t leave Vietnam, then apply for a single entry visa. But if you will leave Vietnam to visit another country and you want to come back on the same visa, then choose multiple entries visa. Multiple entries visa is more expensive than a single entry visa.
Step 2. Preparation for the trip to the border
When you receive the invitation letter, you can prepare for your visa-run. What do you need to bring on your visa-run?
- Two reliable pens.
- Enough water. It can get hot.
- Enough food to keep yourself happy
- The invitation letter
- Three ID pictures
- US dollars
- Some single dollar bills
- Your passport
- Optional: Bring already filled in Application form visa on arrival for Cambodia.
- Optional: Bring already filled in Vietnamese visa application form
- Entertainment (phone, book, music, etc)
- Sun protection. The sun can be harsh.
Getting ID pictures in Vietnam is easy. There is a photocopy shop in almost every street. This is a shop specialized in copying, printing and making photos. They can make a bunch of ID pictures for two dollars. They even do a free photoshop to make sure you will look like a supermodel. You need around three ID pictures for the visa-run.
Bring food and drinks for six hours. Some days it can be hot. I bring around 1,5 liters of water when I’m doing a visa-run to Moc Bai. They also sell water and food around the border. But when I’m traveling for hours, I take none risk with some an unknown food. Letting a fart is still one of the most dangerous things you can do in Vietnam.
Step 3. Take the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to the Moc Bai border
I take the normal public bus from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the Moc Bai border. This is the cheapest solution. You pay 40.000 Dongs for a one-way trip. This is around 1,75 US dollars. The bus number is 703. To see its timetable and route, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone application Busmap. It can help you to plan where you want to get on the bus.
Don’t expect that the bus timetable is accurate. I was on time for the bus. But it didn’t show up. I had to wait 60 minutes for the next bus. Please find a bus stop that has some shades to protect you against the scorching sunlight. When the bus appears on the horizon, please raise your arm so the bus driver knows that you want to get in. Hop on and pay your fare. It will take around two hours to reach the border. Read a book, listen to some music or sleep. Please bear in mind, the bus is really bumpy.
The bus stop for the border is easy to spot. It’s the final stop where all the passengers are getting off the bus. The bus exit is surrounded by old guys. They will ask you if they can bring you to the border on the back of their old, rusty motorbike. This will cost you around 2 dollars. I’m a healthy person. Therefore, I walk. But if you don’t like to walk in the Vietnamese heat, then bargain a price and let one of these guys bring you. I have to warn you that some guys are sticky and insist that you drive with them. Say clear and loud NO. After a few minutes, they understand that you really want to walk and they leave. It’s a five minutes walk to the Vietnamese border control.
Step 4. Leave Vietnam
You can now see the Vietnamese border office. Please enter the office building on the right side. First, you see a security gate with an x-ray scanner. You can skip this because mostly the machine is turned off and there is no staff. Before the custom control, there is a line. This line is mainly for show. This is how a line works in Vietnam. Get your passport and skip the line. Lay your passport on the desk of the customs officer and walk back to the end of the line. Wait till you see that the officer is ready with your passport and he put it back on the desk. My advice is to make your passport easy to spot. Put a colorful sticker on it. Or in my case, I have a blue leather case around my passport. My passport is easy to spot. Get your passport and walk to the second officer. He will check if your passport has the correct exit stamp. When you are outside, you will see a duty-free shop. Sometimes you are lucky and find gems in this shop. Like shampoo that’s made in Europe. Vietnamese shampoo is of horrible quality.
Step 5. Take a walk in no-mans-land.
This is a neutral piece of land. You are not in Vietnam. This is not Cambodia. It’s in between. Halfway you will cross the real border. Also halfway is a road to the south that brings you to a big shop with a lot of duty-free products. I have to admit that I don’t think it’s that cheap. So I always skip that shop.
Step 6. Get a Cambodian visa and enter Cambodia
To enter Cambodia, you need a Cambodian visa. You can get this visa on arrival. There is no need for an invitation letter. The visa cost 30 US dollars.
When you arrive at the Cambodian border office, you will see a little booth on the right side of the big office building. In this small booth, you can apply for the Cambodian visa. When you approach this booth building, a lot of casual guys who want to help you with applying for the visa will greet you. They start by offering a pen and an application form for a visa on arrival. Don’t accept this. You bring your own pen and those forms are for free available from the visa booth. Those guys are asking money for their service. Say NO and get your own form. Take a seat at the pick nick benches and fill in the form. Hand over the visa officers your passport, application form visa on arrival and 30 dollars. You may also have to hand over an ID picture. But mostly they never asked for one. You can use this ID picture on your next visa-run. Hooray. You saved some money. A big possibility exists that the officer will ask for extra money. I count loudly with my finger how many guys are in the booth and give them that amount extra in separate dollar bills. One day I had the bad luck that there were five guys in the booth. So I paid 35 dollars in total. But normally there are only two officers. I pay 32 US dollars and wait a few minutes. Now I have my passport back with a Cambodian visa sticker. I have to mention that the Cambodian officers are always happy. Don’t forget to get some extra spare application forms and put them in your bag. You can use them for your next visa-run.
Enter the big Cambodian office building. Inside you have to fill in another small form. The officer will staple this form in your passport. Please, don’t lose this piece of paper. You will need it when you exit Cambodia. You will also get your entrance stamp.
Welcome to Cambodia. Enjoy Cambodia. You can wander around in Cambodia, You can eat something quick in Cambodia, Or you just can go back to Vietnam.
Step 7. Leave Cambodia
Enter the Cambodian office building again on the right side. Get in line for an exit stamp. Because the Cambodian visa is a single entry, it will get a big stamp with the word “USED”. This officer also takes the stapled form out of your passport. Walk outside and go to the second officer. He will check if you received the exit stamp. Only once it happened to me that he asked for money. Give him a dollar and smile. Walk back to the Vietnamese border.
Step 8. Get a Vietnamese visa
The booth for the visa on arrival is a little hidden. Sometimes you have the luck there is the staff that will guide you to the booth. It’s inside the big office building. When you enter the building, you will find the booth on the right side. You can recognize it with a remarkably low counter. Maybe I’m super tall or the Vietnamese people are tiny.
If you haven’t done it yet, fill in the Vietnamese visa application form. I always fill in that form in advance. So I don’t have that hassle at the border. Give the officer the invitation letter, the Vietnamese visa application form, one ID picture, and the money. A single entry visa cost 25 US dollars. The multiple entries visa cost 50 US dollars. Don’t be shocked if the officer is looking grumpy and ask for five dollars extra. On bad days he will ask for ten dollars extra. I don’t argue and pay the extra money. I spoke with a guy who didn’t want to pay this extra “coffee money” and the officer let him wait for two hours. When the officer is ready, you will get your passport back. Check if you get the correct visa. Are the dates correct on the visa? I read on Facebook that some people got a wrong visa. They applied and paid for a multiple entries visa, but they got a single entry visa.
Step 9. Enter Vietnam
Get in line for the customs officer. He will check your passport and give you an entry stamp. Let the second officer check your passport. Welcome back to Vietnam.
Step 10. Travel back to Ho Chi Minh City
You are almost finished. Moc Bai is in the middle of nowhere. There is not a lot around. But you are in luck that this Border is between two big cities. It’s the main road from Phnom Penh, in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City. Every few minutes a luxury bus is passing the border. Every bus has a few empty seats. Just outside of the Vietnamese office building is a boy busy with getting extra customers for the buses. No need to search for him, he will find you. He will offer a seat for 100.000 or 200.000 dongs. But you can bargain a chair for 50.000 dongs. The boy knows that you can walk for five minutes and take the public bus back to Ho Chi Minh City. I can really recommend riding a luxury bus. It has a big seat with a lot of leg space. Sometimes they even give you free water. If you are in luck, they have turned off the karaoke machine. Don’t ask for a paper ticket. Because of the obvious reason, you won’t get one.
The most luxury buses will follow the same route as the 703 bus does. So when you are close to your starting point you can signal the driver you want to get off. Be quick because the bus won’t really stop for you. It will drive slowly near the pavement so you can hop off. You are ready with your visa-run.
How much does a visa-run cost?
- Invitation letter in HCMC 20 dollars
- Bus to Cambodia 1,75 dollars
- Cambodian visa 30 dollars (it does not include Coffee money)
- Vietnamese visa 25 dollars (it does not include Coffee money) (multiple entries visa is 50 dollars)
- bus back to HCMC 2 dollars
- Coffee money for the officers. Between 7 and 17 dollars
Visa-run to other countries
In the beginning, I just did quick visa-runs. After your breakfast, you travel to the border to renew your visa. With some luck, you are back in Ho Chi Minh City for lunch. But if I already spend 30 dollars on a Cambodian visa. Then this 30 dollar is already a holiday budget. Why not spend 30 dollars on a flight ticket? Therefore, the last years I’m combining the visa-runs with a small trip.
Visa-run to Laos
The Pakse loop is a beautiful route in the south of Laos. In the city of Pakse, you can rent a motorbike to drive a route along the waterfalls and nature in the Dong Hua Sao National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area. To apply for the Laotian visa I didn’t choose for a visa on arrival. Going to Laos is a new experience for me. I didn’t want to take a lot of time at that border to apply for a visa on arrival. Laos has a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m often in District 1, so I visited the Consulate to get a visa in advance.
We took an overnight sleeper bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Pleiku. From there, we took another bus to Pakse. This bus only leaves once a day around 6:00 in the morning. It’s a gorgeous route. They hide the border between Vietnam and Laos in the mountains. The customs procedure of getting out of Vietnam and entering Laos was going smooth.
But the route back home a week later was almost ended in a deception. We took the same bus company back from Pakse to Pleiku. They also start their daily route at 6:00 in the morning. When we arrived at the border, the long wait could start. Not a lot of foreigners are using this border crossing. So visa on arrival is not part of their daily activities. The officers had to prepare my visa sticker in another office, which is located from the main one, five kilometers far away. The officer took my passport and hopped on a motorbike traveling there. They need an official stamp that’s safely stored in a security locker. It felt like I waited forever.
The bus company seldom have foreigners passengers. they are mostly locals who own SEA passports. They all had quick passages and were already waiting on the bus. The driver threatened us many times they want to throw out our luggage and drive further without us. When the driver almost reached his boiling point, the officer finally appeared with my passport and a new visa. We could continue our journal home.
Visa-run the Ha Tien border
Visit the Koh Rong islands in Cambodia. I can highly recommend that. The fastest route is taking the overnight sleeper bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Hà Tiên. Here the travel agency had arranged a minibus. This bus will cross the border and bring us to Sihanoukville. From there we took the ferry to the islands. The islands are truthful beautiful places where you can relax on the many gorgeous beaches. After a short stay at the islands, we took the minibus back to Hà Tiên. Being on time is not the norm in Asia. Our bus left Sihanoukville with a big delay. It didn’t help that in Kampot we had to switch to another bus. Later it turns out it was the same bus we were on the whole afternoon. But they needed the bus for transporting other passengers. So we had to wait in the tourist information office till the bus came back.
The Hà Tiên border closes at 18:00 in the evening. We arrived at 18:30. The Cambodian border was already closing their gates. I grabbed my bags and run to the office building. Luck was on my side because the custom procedure went smooth. A quick sprint through no-mans-land brought me to the Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese officers were still behind their counter. Ten minutes later I had my new visa. I still think if we had ten more minutes of delay, we had to spend an extra night in Cambodia.
Doing the visa-run via international airports
When you arrived from a far destination, you will land on one of the international airports in Vietnam. I mostly arrive at the Internationale airport Tân Sơn Nhất in Ho Chi Minh City. If you already have a visa ready in your passport, you can go straight to the border control. But if you want to use visa on arrival with your invitation letter. You first have to visit the airport‘ visa department. On some days, a lot of international airplanes arrives at the same moment. Hundreds of passengers with an invitation letter need to get a visa. The visa department can be a little overcrowded. It can take a long time before you have your visa. Please keep this in mind if you have a connecting local flight in Vietnam. I had to wait 1,5 hours to get my visa. and then you have to wait in line for the customs. So remember the moment you land and before you are outside of the airport on some days can take two hours.
You first stand in the line for the counter to hand over your passport, ID pictures, and the visa application form. If you don’t have ID pictures, then the officer can shoot them for five Dollars. After you hand over all the documents, the waiting can start. The announcer will call out the names of people whose visa is ready. The English knowledge of the announcer is not that good. She will pronounce mister as mitte. If you have the idea that the announcement sounds like your name, then it’s your name. Go to the cashier counter and pay the lady the fee. I never had to pay any coffee money at the airport. Try to pay the appropriated amount. If you pay with a big dollars bill, you maybe get your chance in Vietnamese Dongs. The valuta rate is never in your favor.