Everything you need to know about Vietnamese visa runs

Vietnamese Visa Runs: Everything You Need to Know

In How-To, Vietnam by Nick30 Comments

Living in Vietnam long-term, at some point your visa will expire. And no, extending that crucial little piece of paper isn’t as easy as you think.
The Vietnam visa run—a majestic, quarterly migration undertaken by the bald eagle as it travels between Vietnam and Cambodia to extend its hunting permit for another 3 months.

Last year, I wrote about the complete mess that is Vietnam’s visa situation. Somehow, things have gotten even worse.

Because of reasons, it is now impossible prohibitively expensive to extend your visa within Vietnam. Although a 3-month extension used to cost just $90, I’m now being told that getting extensions longer than 1 month are hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

A 1-month extension got me quotes from $140 to $180. If you’re like me, that probably sounds like complete and utter horse shit.

Update, Vietnam’s visa situation July 2016: Extending a 3-month, multiple entry visa seems to cost more than $200 just about everywhere. A one-month visa costs 90+, which is still complete bullshit.

Borderline Insanity

Because you’re smarter than the Vietnamese government, you’re not going to extend your visa in Vietnam. You’re going to do it in Cambodia.

For less money. And…faster?

Let me introduce you to “The Border Run.”

Conducting a border run simply means exiting a country, obtaining a new visa at the border in an adjacent country, then immediately returning to the first country.

Right, so hop on a bus to…

Ah yes, you can’t obtain a Vietnamese visa at border crossings. No problem!

Moc Bai Border Run: Phnom Penh

This version of the border run is more straightforward, since you’ll be using a tour company like Giant Ibis. The staff will help you at the border with your passports, however you’ll be spending the night in Phnom Penh. From start to finish, takes about 36 hours.

Here’s the game plan for our visa run to Cambodia (assuming you are in or around Saigon), circa January 2016 (still valid as of August 2016):

  1. (OPTIONAL) Obtain a Cambodian eVisa at this shady-looking but official website. Usually takes 2 or 3 business days. Remember to select the Moc Bai/Bavet border crossing if you’re leaving from Saigon, and print out 2 copies to bring with you.
  2. Book a bus ticket from Saigon to Phnom Penh. There are several companies, but I’ve used Giant Ibis most recently and prefer their buses.
  3. Either have Giant Ibis pick you up at your hotel or drive to their office on Pham Ngu Lao (printed on your bus ticket, may change).
  4. Show them your e-ticket or printed ticket, check your bags with them. Board the bus when ready.
  5. If you skipped step 1, have them help you fill out the form for a Cambodian visa ASAP. You’ll also be required to fill out an arrival card whether you have a visa already or not. Currently the visa costs $35, which you will pay to the conductor immediately.
  6. At the border, you will pass through the first checkpoint on the Vietnamese side, which only involves stamping your passport. Afterwards you stop for a meal between the border checkpoints.
  7. Up next is the Cambodian side, where they’ll check your passport, visa and arrival card.
  8. Once in Cambodia, make a beeline for Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycle Shop or Cina Travel. Beware because there are a couple fake Lucky Lucky shops in the area, so check the address—No. 413Eo, Preah Monivong (St. 93), 12258 Phnom Penh, Preah Monivong Blvd, Cambodia. Bring your passport, tell them how long you want your new visa, whether you want single or multiple entry, pay them (get your receipt!) and ask how long. One-hour processing available for approximately $10 extra. I found Cina Travel to be slightly cheaper and even faster than Lucky Lucky—walking into Cina after 4 pm, they were able to get a 3-month multiple entry visa processed for $70 by 5:15 pm. Insane.
  9. Book your return bus ticket if you’re in a real hurry and it looks like the bus will fill up. I just wait until my visa is in hand, but that’s me.
  10. Same bus procedure. At the border, you’ll get off the bus and proceed through the Cambodian side’s outdoor processing counters. Break at the duty-free shop, then to Vietnam’s side.
  11. On the Vietnamese side, you’ll face tougher scrutiny. File through the hypermart-turned-immigration-checkpoint, where your bags are actually scanned with real metal detectors. Once back on the bus, your passport will be checked again by another Vietnamese official who boards the vehicle.
  12. Congratulations, you’ve completed your first Vietnamese visa run.

Here’s How It Works

Immigration returning to Vietnam, run from an abandoned hypermart

Immigration returning to Vietnam, run from an abandoned hypermart

It took just 36 hours for me to go from Saigon to Phnom Penh and back to Saigon, and my visa only cost $75.

Total cost of the trip? Let’s assume a “normal” domestic visa price in Vietnam, so we’ve already saved a bare minimum of $25. Add in the $35 for the Cambodian visa, between $30 and $40 for bus tickets, and $25 for a hotel (stuff you wouldn’t normally have to pay). So about $70 more than a “normal” visa.

That doesn’t take into account how fast visas are processed in Phnom Penh. Standard processing usually takes at least 5 business days in Vietnam.

You’re probably not paying the standard rate for a visa in Vietnam, either—if I’d stayed home and accepted my fate, I probably would have paid several hundred dollars more.

Moc Bai Visa Run: Speed Run Edition

As of August 2016, I’m now aware of an even faster and cheaper method for obtaining a new visa.

This technique requires some critical thinking and independence on your part, but it’s SIGNIFICANTLY faster.

Alright, here’s the plan:

  1. Obtain a business or tourist visa invitation letter from a travel agent. This shouldn’t be very expensive, especially if you only want a 1 or 3-month visa.
  2. Remember that optional first step in the Phnom Penh section? I actually recommend getting a Cambodian eVisa here, since it will save you a fair bit of time at the border.
  3. On your day of reckoning, head to this location and board public bus #703. God forbid they change the bus number, so please make sure the bus goes to Moc Bai before you call me in tears after riding to Hanoi by accident. The bus leaves every 30 minutes, starts running at 6 am, and costs about 40k VND.
  4. Before you get on the bus, make sure you have your Cambodian eVisa (or money for the visa at the border), passport, invitation letter for your Vietnamese visa, exact change for the Vietnamese visa stamping fee (please check with your travel agent), 2 passport photos, money for the return bus ride, money for extra passport photos in case you lose yours, extra cash in case you need to bribe someone, and some water.
  5. Disembark the bus at Moc Bai. The trip should take less than 3 hours unless you hit extreme traffic.
  6. Walk to the Vietnamese side of the border, where your passport will be stamped and your old visa invalidated.
  7. Amble on over to the Cambodian side. If you didn’t get an eVisa, fill out the application form and the arrival card. Scan your fingertips at the border checkpoint and enter Cambodia.
  8. Loop back around and pass through the Cambodian entry checkpoints. The past few times I’ve done this, they’re the little toll booth areas where buses can also pass through. Totally impossible to miss. Admire the speed and professional manner in which Cambodian border police process your visa.
  9. Back to Vietnamese immigration. I’m sorry if you’re tired of walking. Vietnamese immigration is inside the gutted carcass of an old shopping center, and it’s one of the most depressing places you’ll visit in your life. Right after entering the main door, your goal is the little box with the frosted glass windows to your right. Inside is Moc Bai’s Saint Peter, he who ultimately passes judgment on your visa letter and grants you entrance to the rusty gates of Vietnam. Be nice to this man. Smile a lot.
  10. St. Peter hands you (or crumples up and throws at you) a visa application form. Feel free to ignore ridiculous sections like your family information. Even though I got a business visa, I didn’t even fill out the section on my business sponsorship. Attach one of your precious passport photos. If you forgot your photos, nearby hucksters in dark gray will offer to take one for you. It’s legit, but prepare to get bent over. Hand over your application, invitation letter and stamping fee. If St. Peter or his lackeys demand significantly more money, you have two choices—cave and encourage the further extortion of all foreigners who come after you, or stand resolute and delay your processing time indefinitely.
  11. Freshly stamped visa in hand, proceed through the visa checkpoint nearby. Scan your bag at the metal detector afterwards, and head through your final passport check at the far door. Congrats, you’re back in Vietnam.
  12. Look for the bus back to Saigon (again, every 30 minutes), and be happy you don’t have to do this bullshit again for a while
Business Visas
Want to avoid more visa runs? Get a business visa.

Border Run? More Like Border FUN

If and when immigration gets their act together, visa costs will drop. Border runs might even become obsolete. But don’t hold your breath.

Keep a finger on the pulse of the ever-changing visa fees. Whenever your visa is due to expire, run a quick cost analysis of your options and pick the cheapest, easiest, fastest method. That’s all we can do for now.

Comments

  1. Mark B

    Hey, Nick.
    Just wanted to say I thoughoughly enjoyed reading all of your blog entries at work this afternoon. (I actually skipped over the Ankor Wat ones after the first two.) And I actually bookmarked a few that had what I considered good info.
    And just so you know how I got here, I had googled “What countries aren’t shitholes” and your first blog entry was on the first page of results.

    1. Author
      Nick

      Thanks Mark, glad you enjoyed them. I wrote that post because I kept seeing a lot of other travel blogs hating on Vietnam and warning people not to come here.

  2. Amren

    hi, how long is the travel from Saigon to the border?…I imagine it’s exhausting..I’ll do my visa run on 5th July…one more thing, do they accept vietnam dong in Cambodia?

    1. Author
      Nick

      Hey Amren, the trip from Saigon to the closest crossing is about 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending on traffic in the city, an additional 5 hours to Phnom Penh. It’s actually not too bad, since you take 2 breaks on the way there and the buses are pretty comfortable. They don’t accept VND in Cambodia, but you’ll be able to exchange it at the border or in Phnom Penh. However, I recommend just exchanging it for USD while you’re still in Vietnam–dollars are almost universally accepted in Cambodia at almost no loss of value (4000 Riel to 1 dollar).

  3. Mal

    3 month Extension Visa is quoted at $250 US. 15/08/2016. I’m going on the bus to Phnom Phen. It may cost be a little more, but I will be staying a bit upmarket. Visa renewals are best done at the VN Immigration in Phnom Phen. Too Easy.

    1. Author
      Nick

      Hey Mal, glad you took the path of least resistance. I’m actually getting a business visa this week, so I’ll update this post with more info ASAP.

      I checked prices a couple weeks ago and they were still ridiculous, like you said. $70 for renewal for 1 month. Give me a break. You know it’s insane when travel agents are straight up telling me it makes more sense for me to leave and get a visa in Cambodia.

  4. Dominic

    Thanks a million for this info. Witty and to the point.

    I’m planning on going out to Vietnam in November;

    with renewing the tourist visas, can you do this indefinitely? Do you know of people who have been there 1,2,3 years on renewed tourists visas?

    Thanks,

    1. Author
      Nick

      You CANNOT renew tourist visas for more than a month. Say you come in on a 3-month tourist visa. You can renew, but for only one month. Then you have to leave the country. A lot of agents now are even refusing the greased palm approach with exorbitant fees for 3-month extensions, telling foreigners they have to leave and come back. Used to be you could just keep extending the same 3-month tourist visa at a travel agency—$90 for a 3-month single entry. No more.

      The solution I found is to get a business visa, which can be renewed in Vietnam and doesn’t cost a fortune. I’m getting one this week so I’ll be back soon with more info.

      As for teaching, if you work here your school may or may not take care of the stacks of paperwork to get you a temporary residence card. It’s basically a coin flip.

      1. Dominic

        Thanks Nick.

        In terms of getting a visa for three months by leaving the country, and coming back in.

        Can you do this indefinitely? Like every three months leave come back, for a year, two years and so on?

        Is there people out there for a few years like this or do the authorities stop you coming back in once they’ve seen you’ve gone out and come back in a few times in a year?

        1. Author
          Nick

          My passport is nearly full from entering and exiting Vietnam, both into Cambodia and flying home. People live here for years doing exactly that, so don’t worry.

  5. Dominic

    Nick, you’re a good good man!!!!

    Bro, I’ve been looking for a straight answer to that for ages!!! Show me the money!!!!

    That’s fantastic. How did you get on with your business visa?

    Thanks again Nick.

    1. Author
      Nick

      Hey, just got back from Cambodia. What an ordeal. Yes, I got the business visa. I’ll be updating this post and writing a couple new ones on my experience at the border and the new visa scheme for American citizens.

      Also hit me up once you get to Saigon (if you’re going to Saigon), let’s grab a beer.

  6. Author
    Nick

    Post has been updated with a much faster way to conduct border runs, although it’s slightly more frustrating. Good luck.

  7. jill woodley

    hey… Thanks for the info … We arrived in Vietnam 2 weeks ago and got a free 2 week visa … We are off to phut quot where we will get another free visa… problem is we are coming back to Ho Chi Minh so how do I get a visa. We have an approval letter ???

    1. Author
      Nick

      Jill, it depends on your nationality. Do you mean you already have an approval letter?

  8. Andrew

    VC government raised visa fee to Americans to retaliate visa raise from US to Vietnamese seeking US visa to US. That’s simple and that’s why I hear.

    1. Author
      Nick

      That’s the simple explanation, but American visas are now back to normal.

  9. Maria Isaksen

    Hey 🙂 Do you know if a danish citizen who has a free 14 days visa to Vietnam (wich we can get when going from Laos to Vietnam) will be able to d0 a visarun and get another free 14 days visa?

    1. Author
      Nick

      Sorry I don’t know for sure. It would probably make more sense to buy a month multiple entry visa, since it will cost about the same as doing multiple visa runs and paying for Lao/Cambodian visas.

  10. Emeka

    I am on motorbike.
    I am in Nha Trang going to Qhi Nhon.
    Visa runs out on Thursday.
    Today is Monday.
    I want to leave bike on Vietnam side
    go to Laos
    then walk back to my bike in Vietnam.
    Is this possible?
    What do I need?

    1. Author
      Nick

      I’m not sure what you need to cross into Laos as I’ve never done it before, but it should be the same procedure. Check with someone living in central or northern Vietnam to be sure.

  11. Nick

    Thanks great post.
    I’d like to do the speed edition for a 2nd 3 month tourists visa.
    Are the invitation letters easy to obtain from visa agents in Saigon?
    Online agents seem to only do airport arrivals.

    1. Author
      Nick

      Last time I checked the rates should be close to what I posted earlier, with month, 3 month and year visas available

  12. Paul

    Hi! How did you apply for a business visa? I’m doing my run next week as my 3-month tourist visa is expiring. I’m a Filipino, so would you know if the same rate applies to us?

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  14. Robin

    Hey mate, great article! Really thorough and straight foward. I have a few questions…

    I’ve gone through the process with a visa invitation letter before while traveling by air from Thailand. I read/was told that this method is only for travellers going through air check points but your article says this is the process used at the land checkpoint. Whats the skinny on this?

    Also, how are the two busineses in Phnom Penh able to issue Vietnam visas? Just seems strange a bike shop can issue visas to another country.

    Cheers!

  15. Bob Scuffham

    Hi Nick. Keep up the good and humorous work.
    My visa expires in 6 weeks and I will be doing the Moc Bai run.
    Can you get the 12 month business visa on this run?
    I am Australian.
    Cheers mate.

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