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.
Why Go: Iran has a big image problem, but it also has remains of the Persian Empire, which once controlled much of the Middle East and nearly conquered Greece. They include the impressive ruins of Persepolis (a thriving city about 2,500 years ago and a UNESCO World Heritage Site); and stunning architecture in the frenetic cities of Tehran and Isfahan, the former capital of what was once Persia and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country today.
Why It's Complicated: It's not an easy place to visit. Start with the fact that all U.S. citizens get fingerprinted on entry. Add to that the U.S. State Department's Travel Warning that advises against travel to Iran.
What to Do: If you still want to go, you need to have a sponsor (an Iran-based travel agency, such as Let's Go Iran, will do) and they need to get approval for your visit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iran, which issues a reference number that is then forwarded with your visa application to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C. Here's the kicker: Passport photos for female travelers must adhere to Islamic dress code (you need to cover your head and dress modestly). The process takes a "very long time," according to Habimana. And even if you follow all of the instructions and earn a visa, that doesn't guarantee you'll gain entry. "Some U.S. citizen travelers with valid visas have been refused entry at the border without explanation," says the State Department.
Why Go: Fictional Borat may have put Kazakhstan on the map, but it's actually the ninth-largest country in the world by size and a place that combines Islamic, Western, and Soviet culture into an unusual mix. Adventure seekers come for the many mountains, which provide both trekking and skiing opportunities. Others come to explore the nomadic past of the Kazakhs and to see UNESCO World Heritage attractions, including petroglyphs and nature reserves that are home to such species as the rare Siberian white crane.
Why It's Complicated: When it comes to visas, all the "Stans" can be tough, according to Habimana. For Kazakhstan, for instance, you need to write a personal letter of intent to the embassy in Washington, D.C., stating the purpose of your trip, the places you plan to visit, and your dates.
What to Do: Follow the instructions on the embassy's website, and apply a month out from your trip (approval takes a couple of weeks). While the government enacted new rules in 2010 to try to simplify the process, what that means for tourists remains to be seen. Fans of bureaucratic garble will appreciate the official description of the changes, which are "aimed at further liberalization and streamlining of Kazakhstan's visa regime."
Why Go: The holy Muslim cities of Mecca, to which all able Muslims must undertake a pilgrimage, and Medina are the country's big tourist calling cards. There are other sights of interest, too, including the ancient elaborately carved tombs of Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia's version of Petra (as in Jordan, the temples at Madain Saleh were carved by the Nabataeans).
Why It's Complicated: But good luck going to see these amazing sites—Saudi Arabia discourages visits by U.S. citizens and is currently not issuing standard tourist visas.
What to Do: The embassy will occasionally make an exception for religious tourism, but you must apply through a licensed U.S. travel agency representing the consulate, and the prices are high ($500 to $600 per visa if you're approved). If you are visiting as a business traveler, you need to have an invitation from a local company you are doing business with and visas can take months to process. Women visitors traveling alone need to be met by sponsors at the airport or may face delays in entering the country, according to the U.S. State Department. And overstaying your welcome is also not looked upon kindly—go beyond the dates on your visa, and you may face a $2,667 fine and incarceration.
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).