Bureaucracy is a hassle, but it shouldn't stop you from seeing the world. That's why we've compiled a list of places—some more surprising than others—that require serious planning to visit. Read this before you book your next flight.
Some tourist visa applications are easy—an Australian visa, for example, can be acquired in a few minutes via the Internet. Others, however, can take weeks, if not months to procure. The following eight countries, including China, India, and Brazil, are especially tricky to visit if you're a U.S. citizen. To ease the process, we enlisted the help of an expert, Medhy Habimana, director of operations for visa service VisaHQ. Habimana walks us through how far in advance you should begin the visa process, the amount of money you should plan to pay for the paperwork, and what you can expect once you arrive. While you can apply for visas closer to your trip than we recommend, delaying may mean extra fees for expedited service. But whatever you do, if you're planning a trip to one of these destinations, call the embassy to verify the visa process before you solidify your travel plans. Visa requirements change often, and the last thing you want is to think that you're all set to travel—only to find out that you're not. On the other hand, some of these places are well worth the effort.
Why Go: The urban energy of Mumbai and Bollywood, the tiger reserves of Rajasthan, the elegance of the Taj Mahal…India's allure is easy to understand.
Why It's Complicated: It's not that it's difficult per se to get a visa in India—more than 8 million Americans visit the country each year—it's more that the process is time-consuming. If you're not expecting the lengthy application exercise, the visa can come as a surprise—and potentially delay your vacation.
What to Do: First, you need to apply to Travisa Visa Outsourcing, the contractor that handles processing for the Government of India. Travisa will let you know which embassy or consulate has jurisdiction where you live. Then you have to provide proof of residency, such as a photocopy of your driver's license and of a major utility bill—water, gas, or electric is OK; cable or cell phone is not. (Reach out to your consulate to confirm the kind of paperwork they will request as requirements change frequently.) And talk about picky: Travisa Visa Outsourcing says on its website, "Do not cut your driver's license copy down to a smaller size. Please leave the copy on regular sized paper." If you don't submit a copy, they will make a photocopy for you for $2.
Why Go: Russia is persnickety, but cultural treasures like the Hermitage, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the historic brick towers of the Kremlin make enduring the wearisome visa process worthwhile.
Why It's Complicated: To begin with, you'll need an invitation letter. Your sponsor can be a Russia-based hotel or tour operator registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia. Alternatively, you can work with a visa agency such as VisaHQ, Travisa, or A Briggs to get a letter. And securing a letter is only the beginning. The U.S. State Department advises you have someone who reads Russian check your visa before you leave the U.S. to make sure it reflects your intended dates, hotel, and activities. Once you get approval (in the form of a voucher number), you need to deliver your visa application in person (or hire a visa service to do so) at one of five consulate offices in the U.S.
What to Do: The process takes time, so you should "apply as early as you can," Habimana advises. (The consulate will allow you to apply up to 60 days in advance of your trip.) Once you get to Russia, don't overstay your welcome (the duration of the Russian tourist visa cannot be longer than one month). Do so, and you'll find yourself stuck in Russia until a new visa is approved—a process that can take up to 20 days.
Consider a Visa Service
For some countries, it may be easier to get your visa via a service such as VisaHQ, though of course a fee is involved (prices usually start at around $45). Here are the main reasons to consider professional help:
1. If you don't live in a city with an embassy or a consulate, the service will represent you so that you don't have to travel to the embassy or consulate yourself.
2. Some visa-service professionals provide real-time updates, sending you reassuring messages that your passport is in proper hands and the like.
3. Once your paperwork is ready, they have people who speak the language who can review the documents and make sure everything is in order.
4. Visa services are very knowledgeable about country-specific quirks, such as special holidays when embassies and consulates close (for example, the Indian consulates close for Dussehra), and that some countries including Iran and Saudi Arabia won't admit you if you have an Israeli stamp (requiring you to get a second U.S. passport without a stamp).