International travel involves a host of confusing issues when it comes to the documentation needed to enter and depart foreign countries. In addition to a valid passport, some countries require tourist or visitor visas that may involve an application process and fee. Factor in that you will arrive by cruise ship (which may be covered under different rules in some cases) and it can all become quite complicated. The first step is always research, and we've done a bit of that to help get you started. Here's some basic information on whether you need a visa for your cruise, and how to apply for one.

Do I Need a Visa on My Cruise?

It depends. For North Americans, many popular cruise destinations -- such as the Eastern and Western Caribbean, Alaska and Western Mediterranean -- do not require visas. But ships that call on more exotic destinations might include visits to a country where you'd need a visa to enter. In addition, there are some destinations where independent travelers need a visa, but cruise travelers or cruise travelers on licensed tours do not.

How do you know which countries have which rules? You might think to ask your cruise line, but they are not always the most helpful. Many cruise lines post information on their website and in the cruise documents about whether you need a visa on your specific cruise. But they follow up with fine print that indicates that it is not their responsibility to provide visas for passengers or to offer advice regarding such matters (even though they've just done so). Essentially, the lines give "tips," but are quick to acknowledge that you should never rely solely on those tips.

The Cruise Critic message boards are a fantastic resource for asking fellow cruisers if they needed visas on their cruises to the same destinations you're visiting. You can often learn details about the visa process in specific ports through firsthand accounts from those who have recently been there.

But when it comes to visas, it is best to stick with the adage, "Trust, but verify."

U.S. citizens can easily look up visa requirements at Travel.State.gov under the "International Travel" tab. Search for each country your ship will visit to see the visa requirements along with a wealth of other information. The tourist visa requirement is displayed in the "Quick Facts" box at the top of the page. Scroll down a little to the specific section for "Entry, Exit and Visa Requirements," which will have details, sometimes including additional information specifically for cruise passengers. Canadian citizens can use a similar site: Travel.gc.ca.

It is important that you have a valid visa for all ports of call that require them, even if you do not plan to disembark. Emergencies, either yours or the ship's, could force a situation that would make a visa unexpectedly necessary.

How Do I Get a Cruise Visa?

Once you determine that you need one or more visas for your cruise, the next step is getting them. There are relatively few countries where the cruise line will assist passengers in obtaining the necessary visa prior to arrival. You can usually find this information by searching your cruise line's website for the country name and the word "visa" or by calling the cruise line directly.

There are two main ways to obtain a visa. Apply directly with the country by going through its consulate, or by using a third-party visa service. Both the U.S. and Canadian government sites provide links to the appropriate websites for visa application forms for countries that require them. Your travel agent may also be able to assist you.

Tips for Applying for a Visa

1. Read Everything

You can save yourself a lot of headaches by first thoroughly reading all the information on your cruise line's website specific to your cruise itinerary, and then on your home country's website. Taken together, you should get a clear explanation of the rules plus information regarding possible visa exceptions for cruisers.

Russia is a good example of a country with cruise visa exceptions. On the State Department's page of detailed visa requirements for visiting Russia, you will find the link to the application forms in the first paragraph along with the assurance that "Russian authorities strictly enforce visa and immigration laws." With that stern admonition, it is tempting to click the link and get on with filling out the forms on the Russian site, but by reading further on the State Department's site, you learn that cruise passengers can stay up to 72 hours in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok if they are accompanied by a licensed tour operator.

That means that if you will be touring with the ship or a licensed guide, you won't need a tourist visa at all. If you plan to venture out on your own, you will need to apply for the visa.

2. Consult Your Travel Agent

A good travel agent with experience both traveling on cruise ships and booking them for travelers can usually provide the information you need regarding which countries require visas, how much you should expect to pay and where to get them. Some even provide the service for their clients for a fee.

3. Compare Services

Use a commercial visa service only after checking the official website of the country you'll be visiting. That way you will have a clear picture of whether you can manage the application on your own. You will also see the direct price charged by the consulate compared to what the third-party visa service charges.

A good example is Brazil. Obtaining tourist visas from Brazil used to be a challenging proposition and using a visa service was highly recommended. With the addition of e-visas for U.S. citizens, the process is easily accomplished online with a minimum amount of technical skill, and the fee charged by the consulate is less than half what a visa service will charge you.

4. Plan Ahead

Most cruise visas can be obtained in less than a week, but it is best to start the process as soon as your cruise is booked. Some countries require photos, even for e-visas. Others may only send visas by mail. To avoid last-minute frantic rushes and fees for expedited services, the ideal time to research and apply for visas is shortly after your cruise is booked.