Travel Talk

Here’s the talk I did at a local high school (my old school!) today. It’s meant to be encouraging to young people looking to get into this nomadic travel lifestyle. It went over quite well!

If anyone, high schooler or no, has questions for me about travel and this life I’ve chosen, contact me directly below. I write back quickly.


My #TravelStoke Map, 2015

Coleen Monroe-Knight’s Travel Map

Coleen Monroe-Knight has been to: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Switzerland, Chile, People’s Republic of China, Germany, Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Iceland, Italy, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Korea, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, San Marino, United States, Vatican.
Get your own travel map from Matador Network.

What to Know About Applying for Visas: Become a Bureaucratic Ninja

This morning I arose after a night tossing and turning, with visions of paperwork and stamps in my head. I turned on NPR and jumped in the shower, carrying my pre-laid-out professional-but-not-flashy in person application outfit. I grabbed my Go Folder and headed out the door into a mini-snowstorm. Fifty minutes of intense winter driving later, I was at the Colorado Passport Agency.

Today, I renewed my trusty passport in preparation for moving to Shanghai, China. My international life had taken up too many pages. The passport that ushered me across the borders of 25 countries was suddenly no more, with two precise holes punched through it.

This is normal for me. I have applied for more than five full-pager visas. This is what they can look like.

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK. Chile’s is above. 

I don’t know which process was more intense, the E-2 work visa for Korea or the Tier 4 student visa for the UK. Both were months long, involved huge amounts of paperwork, and required various biological data (biometrics for the UK, a full-blown health exam and fingerprinting for Korea). Italy’s Schengen study visa was the first I ever applied for. India required a full application even as a tourist. Chile’s took me far longer than my programme said it would because I lived in a tiny town in Patagonia. In seven years, five major visa applications. And I’m in the middle of my sixth.

You could say I’m familiar with immigration and visas.

I know from experience that this amount of involvement can feel less like red tape and more like a bureaucratic Ninja Warrior course. It’s not something that many people mention when talking about study and work abroad, perhaps because it would re-traumatise those who make it through. Being able to get a visa is the step that can make or break a trip abroad.

My best advice for getting yourself into Paperwork Warrior shape is here:

Before you do anything else, make certain that your passport is in hand. It must be valid for at least six months after you intend to leave your destination in most cases. You also need to consider how many pages you have available. Some countries (ahem, Korea and China) may discourage the use of ‘additional visa pages’ and require the originals. Renew as necessary.


Get a folder. Label it on the front in black, permanent, HUGE letters with words to reflect the seriousness of the process. Something to the effect of “VISA DOCUMENTS. Do not move, touch, re-arrange, or put away this folder or I will chuck my passport repeatedly at your thick head!” (don’t actually write that….). This will be your Folder of Doom.

Organize thyself!

Organize thyself!

Take this Folder of Doom and make sure it has a home. Always put it back in that home. It gets homesick if it’s out for even a few minutes, if it’s not doing the work for which it was born. Be consistent. Losing this shit will make you lose out on your trip.

Depending on the country to which you are applying, and the nature of the visa you require, the list of documents that must go into the Folder of Doom will change. For example, a student visa will generally require a letter of enrolment (official), proof of funding and means, and more. A work visa is generally more intensive, requiring criminal background checks, degrees that have been officially recognised, letters of reference, you firstborn, etc.

An FBI Background Check for a visa (required for work and some student visas) should be your first priority to submit. It requires:

  1. A set of fingerprints taken at your local police station.
  2. A completed form and payment (you can pay with a credit card).
  3. 14-16 WEEKS for processing (an international embarrassment; the UK takes two days). According to the FBI’s website as of 4 February 2015:

On September 7, 2014, CJIS installed a new IT system. As a result of this installation, we are experiencing delays in processing. Please be assured that each issue is being identified and resolved as quickly as possible, but at this time anticipated processing time for an Identity History Summary is approximately 14-16 weeks. Allow additional time for mail delivery. “

As soon as you possibly can, submit this. Even before you have a job secured in Korea or a place on your year-long study abroad program in Spain or Chile. Before applying for a passport, if you need one.

Get familiar with your local notary.

Get familiar with the term ‘apostille.’ This is a special recognition of the authenticity and importance and general expensiveness of an official document like a university degree or a criminal record check. It can be quite stressful to obtain, and takes time. Check your state’s Secretary of State website for more details, and consider going with a channeler.

Get familiar with being fingerprinted. It takes practice, believe it or not.

Always show up early for appointments at the embassy or any other official office. Leave time for getting lost/a giant random snowstorm. Bring only what is necessary for that appointment, and leave the Folder of Doom in its home.

Be stubborn, but practical. If necessary, ask to speak to a manager. I once sat down on the floor of the Chilean equivalent of the DMV and refused to leave until they gave me my passport back. It had been two weeks that I’d been walking around passportless, and I couldn’t go on a trip to Argentina without it. I gauged the situation carefully, and I don’t recommend this except as a last resort. The woman eventually opened an unlocked filing cabinet (!) and attempted to hand me a Russian passport. I walked out with the passport and that damn sticker, ready to complete the next step of any work permit: the residency card.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures.

Keep all your receipts. ALLLL you receipts. You never know when you may need them. Put them in the Folder of Doom.

If your visa requires a health check, either before or after arrival, assume that you will be drug tested. Don’t take any risks. I live in Colorado now, and there are temptations. Just don’t do it. The laws regarding drug use of the country you are going to is all that anyone will care about. Get healthy and get used to giving up illegal activities. It’s just not worth the consequences.

Find something to do in offices and at home that will keep your hands busy while you wait. Crochet is a great one, I’ve found.

And finally, once you do send away the documents and your passport make certain that you get a tracking number. Put that tracking number into your Folder of Doom. Depending on the embassy and national holidays, you should get the package back in a few days to a few weeks. Make sure you have your ‘No Idle Hands’ activities ready.


Gathering all your documents and getting them to the embassy or consulate on time is enough to give me an ulcer. It comes and goes. It’s cool. Visas and immigration are a big part of my life, and it doesn’t look like they will be leaving it any time soon. When my husband and I go through the partner visa process in one of our countries, or emigrate to a third party country that will accept us both, I’ll post a guide.

If you have any questions, I will do my best to help you out. Contact me here:

The Transition: Moving Abroad. Again.

It’s coming to a close, this chapter. I began boxing up our things this morning; I slowly prioritised our wedding decorations and the Christmas decorations I totally forgot to put out this year, making them into small packages for a life on the move. Again.

I’ve written that phrase more in the last four years than anyone else I know. I’m moving abroad. Again. In February, which seems to be my month of international transition. Again. To a different continent. Again. I have no idea where I will be physically in three month’s time, much less six months or next Christmas. Again.

This time is the same, and it is different. We’re in the process to move to China. To teach. This time, it’s ‘we.’ My new husband and I are in the process, gathering bizzarely-phrased visa documents and wading through the abject tedium of a TEFL course.

The health form for a Chinese Z Visa

The health form for a Chinese Z Visa

As long as we don’t get cholera from our water here in east East London, we’re golden. I’ll be sure to wear my pomander on my petticoat to ward off The Plague as well.

The transition is opaque this time. More opaque than usual, for me. By this time four years ago, I had known for more than a month and a half that I would be leaving for Chile in February 2011.  Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.21.29Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.21.58

I knew what was coming, and I didn’t. The adventure in Patagonia was distant, but the flight was booked. A clear date (I thought; as it turned out the flight had to be delayed for an eardrum-puncturing infection that cost $450 and made me arrive in Santiago February 25th instead. The incredible mishaps of my flight to South America here.)  I had at least the illusion of clarity about my move abroad. I didn’t know which region of Chile I’d be in, but I’d requested Magallanes. I had an idea.

In 2011, it was the same deal.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.29.11

Hah. I just realised I misspelled my future hometown in Korea. It’s Suwon, not ‘Sewon.’ I knew it would be February. I knew where I would be. I even knew my school’s name. It is difficult to Google things in South Korea, but I had a general idea where I’d be.

The transition was long to Korea. I left on one day and arrived two days later over the International Date Line. I endured chintzy magic tricks from the flight crew on Asiana Air Lines in that hour where the tenuous grip on reality slips closest to breaking…hour 13 on a trans-Pacific flight. I got in a cab in the freezing Korean winter with four other newbs, two of whom had never set foot in another country before. We set out for Suwon, across Seoul’s impressive girth. I later found out that a bus drops travellers off directly outside my school in Yeongtong. What I would’ve given to not be jet-lagged, lost, and full of pee after four hours of carsickness when I met my coworkers and students.

But I knew where I would be. The next year, I knew where we would be in three month’s time. Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.37.30

We were heading away from Korea, into India. And I knew that in the end of 2013 I’d be somewhere, doing graduate school things. I knew that it would be a year of moving around and having no fixed place to call ours and living on three continents (four? India sure felt like a separate world, much less tectonic cluster).

And this year? No idea. There are less than three weeks until we have to move out of our tiny front room of a studio apartment. The date my visa expires is rather abruptly in the calendar I keep online. It’s been there for more than a year…waiting for this sudden transition.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.39.43

Tomorrow at midnight, 2014 will be the past. This transition is coming. It’s practically here.

We haven’t bought a ticket. Even to leave the country. We haven’t a clue where we will be, although there is some vague indication that it might be the southern part of China. Shenzhen, maybe. But we’re not really sure. No way of knowing what our living situation might be, what city we might be in, or even if Russell can process his visa in the US or not. No indication of when we will go to China except maybe mid-late February. If we go at all. We have a vague Plan C: Get to Vietnam and meet in Ho Chi Min City.

The illusion of certainty was a lot stronger in 2010, 2011, and 2012. But it was just that…an illusion. Nothing could have prepared me for what adventures lay ahead in Chile, Korea, India, and England. I clung to the idea that by having a booked flight and a general idea of what I’d be doing, I’d figured it all out. I was able to be comfortable in the false certainty. But once I arrived in each of those places, the illusion faded away.

This time, there is no illusion to begin with. 2015 will bring at least two moves abroad. Again. This is all I need to know.

How to Travel Through Your Stress, By Someone Who Should Know

Stress-Free in Patagonia, 2011

Stress-Free in Patagonia, 2011

Edit: This article was written as part of a campaign for Stress Awareness Month (April) by Dropcam, a home security company that allows you to be in two places at once. Check them out here!

Calmness is not my forte.

Those who know me personally probably know about my tendency to worry, and to think about the worst possible things that could happen. My sister calls it being an emotional superhero. I wish my catastrophizing were that cool. A former teacher of mine once said that he could never have imagined me moving abroad each year to a new country when I was younger. I was always (and still am) introverted, shy, and nervous.

Despite all that, I travel. I find it really important to get out into the world and see a little bit of everything. It’s a big part of my life, and may be my lifestyle for many years to come. How did a nervous, worrying, shy teenager become a circumnavigating nomad?

It’s a long story, but it boils down to three concrete steps. I’ll not list them in a convenient listicle for you, because I hate that format. But follow me here. I truly believe that anyone can become a globe-trotting traveller, and that stress is one of the things you have to master in order to get there. Luckily, the steps are relatively easy.

Tuscany, 2007

Tuscany, 2007

First and foremost, get yourself some travel mantras. No, this isn’t some new agey thing I picked up in India while backpacking there for two months. This is a practice that I began when I took my first trip abroad alone at the age of 19.

I was so nervous that I threw up in the airport after security. I had never been on a plane alone before, and I was flying to a city most Americans had never heard of (unfortunately it’s now infamous, thanks to the Amanda Knox murder trial). I was inexperienced and green. I thought you had to bring shampoo to Italy and a boatload of deodorant. You know, because Europeans are smelly (Not actually true).

A lot changed on that first trip, but one of the biggest things was the addition of travel mantras. They’ve become my words to live by, the things I turn to when the shit hits the inevitable fan. Or my face. The very first one, after getting thrown off a train from Perugia to Assisi on my very first venture into solo travel:

Get on the next train. 

I’ve since added many more to that list, but my favourite is a shameless reference to Game of Thrones. Did I mention that this traveller is positively terrified of flying? The only thing that gets me through takeoff and turbulence:

The only time you can be brave is when you are afraid. Be brave. Be brave. Be Brave. 
At the summit of Mt. Bierstadt, August 2011

At the summit of Mt. Bierstadt, August 2011

Travelling alone is the second thing that truly helped transform my stress into travel. Beyond travel mantras, I found it so empowering to wander alone in the world and seek out experiences that I could treasure as my own forever. This is especially important for women. Women must take time to travel alone. There is nothing better for changing into a confident being than being forced to rely only on yourself.

You’ll find that you are far more capable than you ever imagined. Travelling alone removes distractions. It demands you watch out for yourself; there’s no one else to mind your bag! It makes you realise how much good there is in the world, and how kind most people truly are. It opens up the possibility of trips you’d never take if you sat around waiting for someone to follow you.

Travelling alone is the true way to reorganise your brain about stress. You alone are responsible for your experiences, and it feels good! Who knows? If you go on that random hiking trip alone, you might just meet your perfect travelling partner!

Rafting the Ganga, 2013

Rafting the Ganga, 2013

Perhaps the biggest thing that helps my nervous arse get out there into the world and travel is planning. Planning ahead eases my nervous mind, and tricks it. Other nervous people will recognise the feeling that you are in a constant battle with your nervous self, trying to outsmart them. Planning, with spreadsheets (yes, travel spreadsheets), is my favourite trick.

I plan meticulously. I make it concrete. I make lists of packing supplies and run trial packs up to a month in advance of a trip. I budget. I focus. The nerves fall away.

I always know that I will have to let go of my tiny plan at some point in a trip. Sometimes practically immediately. But the planning is a travel ritual, a means to an end. I can let myself off the hook and just travel, knowing that everything is taken care of at home and in my bag. My minuscule level of control, keeping my nervous brain satisfied.

The London Eye, 2013

The London Eye, 2013

People often ask me how I travel so much. Or why. I don’t have concrete answers to those questions, but I know it’s right for me. And it’s right for you, too. The most discouraging thing is to see someone give up on travelling, just because they are nervous.

Travel through your stress, and gain the world. Take it from someone who knows.