Do I need a volunteering visa?

The face of society has changed radically over the years. The handful (relatively) of wealthy grow ever more wealthy and the ranks of the poor are burgeoning. Governments, for a variety of reasons, are progressively less competent to address the imbalance and to deal with the devastating effects of extreme poverty. 

In such times of adversity and, in the absence of government intervention, people tend to turn towards each other to stand united against the challenges. This is the spirit and the face of volunteering. It is also a fact that giving selflessly to others has a beneficial psychological effect on the benefactor.

Thus, there are, and will always be, millions of people giving up their time or money for the good of others. Volunteering across frontiers, in far-flung corners of the world, sometimes in the most appalling of conditions, still appeals to millions of people every year. 

There are many reasons why people volunteer. One thing is certain, though. Volunteering is constantly trending upwards with no sign of reversal any time soon. Bar, of course, global crises such as Covid-19 and the associated travel restrictions.

All of these millions of well-intentioned people have one thing in common. In order to get where they’re needed, they need to cross a border. For that, you need a passport. And, chances are, you’ll need a visa. Which begs the question; how do you obtain a volunteering visa? Firstly, is there even such a thing?

Visa Types

Before any person can embark on a cross-border journey, they need one or two vital things. The first is a passport. No exceptions. Well, one; Kings and queens, generally, do not require passports. Even presidents and other elected leaders need them.

The other is a visa. This is an authorization by the immigration authorities of a destination country for a foreigner to enter the country. 

There are three basic visa types

  • Tourist Visa
  • Business Visa 
  • Official Visa

In general, visas are granted for a specific purpose, whether leisure or business. A tourist visa is intended purely for leisure purposes. A business visa, on the other hand, is for conducting business activities such as consultations, commercial negotiations, and the like. 

It’s worth pointing out that there is a clear distinction between a work permit and a business visa. A business visa usually applies when the visit will be of limited duration and will not result in remuneration being paid from within the destination country. Work permits are usually of a longer duration and the worker’s salary is paid locally. If you need further guidance, you can refer to this useful cheatsheet.

As you can see, there is no specific visa type for volunteering. The requirements for visas for volunteering engagements are somewhat of a grey area. The rules and regulations vary so much from one country to another. Navigating this veritable minefield can be quite daunting.

What exactly is volunteering? 

  • Is it work? 
    • It certainly is work. Volunteering, more often than not, requires immense physical effort. Volunteering is seldom, if ever, passive 
  • Does it then fall under the broad definition of a work visa? Or, alternatively, a business visa?
    • Probably neither, in most cases. But it depends on the destination country, the organization you’re volunteering for, and the nature and duration of the specific project or program. 
  • Is there any monetary remuneration?
    • If yes, then this would most likely be classified as work and the appropriate work permit would be required.
    • If no money is paid, but accommodation and food are provided, it would probably not be classified as work.
    • If there is no reward at all then it can certainly not be regarded as work in the official sense.

To sum up, it’s quite clear that volunteering involves work. Very hard work most of the time. But it is also very clear that there is no easy answer in terms of visa requirements if any.

Most common visa options  

Since almost every country in the world grants visa-free entry to citizens of certain countries, the first thing you need to do is to check here whether you need a visa at all. Simply select your nationality from the dropdown list and all the visa requirements will be shown. 

Do keep in mind that this is an independent website and should only act as a quick reference. Countries amend visa requirements periodically so there is a possibility, albeit a slim one, that details may be outdated. It is advisable to check with the destination country embassy before finalizing travel plans. Nowadays almost every country has all its visa requirements and application processes online.  

If you do need a visa, what type must it be? The most common visa type is a normal tourist visa. These, however, all come with a variety of limitations and conditions.

  • Standard tourist visas can have validity periods ranging from 14 days to 90 days
  • Some tourist visas can be extended; some cannot
  • Some tourist visas are issued on arrival; some must be obtained before departure from your home country
  • More and more countries are adopting e-visas nowadays. Selected nationalities are permitted to apply online for a travel authorization. This requires personal details, uploading a copy of your valid passport, and, in some cases, payment of a fee. 


These visas are usually approved within hours or a day or two. As the name implies, this is an electronic authorization and does not require a printed copy. It is, however, advisable to have a printed copy in the event of any difficulties.

An important note to remember; if the volunteer program duration exceeds the validity of the tourist visa, including any permissible extensions, then you have two options.

  • You would have to leave the program prematurely to ensure you depart the host country on or before the last day of visa validity, or
  • The volunteer organization would have to make a special arrangement with the host country authorities to grant a special extended expiry for your visa.  

As previously mentioned, there are several exceptions regarding the visa requirements for volunteers. Several countries do, in fact, require a work visa even if the volunteer work does not attract any form of remuneration. Their premise is that work is work, irrespective of the nature thereof or whether it’s paid or totally charitable.

In recent years, some countries have started adopting a specific volunteer visa. Tanzania and India have been reported to have launched this form of visa. In these countries, it is illegal to do any voluntary work whilst in possession of any other visa type.

South East Asia is a popular volunteering destination and the rules vary considerably between the countries. It’s worth doing some initial research on the rules and requirements by country before starting to plan anything too seriously.

It’s important that any person wishing to volunteer abroad, checks with the volunteer organization. They should be familiar with the latest rules and regulations. If you’re still in any doubt, it would be very advisable to consult the relevant embassy or host country immigration department website.

In closing

To summarize, except for a handful of countries, there is no such thing as a volunteer visa. This may be set to change though as countries start recognizing the role of volunteering. 

Most volunteers travel abroad on a tourist visa. These travelers must ensure that they’re fully aware of the facts regarding their visa type, eligibility, and validity. They must be very sure to observe expiry dates and extension options and procedures. 

Lastly, in some countries, any work, even volunteer work, requires a work permit. Respect this. Even if it is a somewhat arduous and costly exercise, make sure you have the correct type of visa.

The penalties for flouting visa rules can be quite severe and may vary from a reprimand to monetary penalties and, in some cases, to a ban on entering the specific country in the future. In extreme cases, travelers could be remanded in custody.

Whatever you do, do not fall foul of visa laws. The consequences are seldom any less than entirely unpalatable. 

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