8 Most Complicated Countries to Visit
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.
By Fran Golden, Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011, 3:00 PM
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.
Why Go: Many a bucket list includes walking on the Great Wall, embracing history at the Forbidden City, gasping at the Terra Cotta Warriors, and exploring glorious Shanghai.
Why It's Complicated: China is not unfamiliar with American visitors, so its visa process is pretty straightforward but makes the list for both the detail required on the application—expanded in January 2011 from two pages to four—and a steep $130 fee.
What to Do: According to Habimana, you need to list where you'll be staying in a time sequence, your nationality and occupation, all your major family members along with their nationality and occupation, and any countries you've visited in the past year (plus the purpose of those visits). Mailing your application is out of the question. Either you or your visa rep (defined as "someone else or a travel/visa agent") need to drop off your application at the embassy or consulate that holds jurisdiction over the state where you live. There are six consulates in the U.S. (you can find them on the embassy's website) and some are more convenient than others (if you live in Wyoming or Montana, for example, you'll need to travel to D.C. to hand over your application). Special permits are also required if you want to go to certain regions, such as Tibet and other remote areas. While the processing time is only four working days, the visa application will be rejected if not filled out correctly online.
Why Go: Rio de Janeiro being named site of the 2016 Olympics and the Christ the Redeemer Statue making the list of New 7 Wonders of the World have helped boost Brazil's status as a must-do tourism destination—as if the giant party that is Carnival in Rio, the rain forests of the Amazon, and the amazing Iguazú Falls weren't enough.
Why It's Complicated: When it comes to visas, Brazil has a process made confusing by the fact that each of its consular and visa-services offices around the U.S. can set their own rules (you have to go to the office that covers the jurisdiction where you live—the list is on the embassy's website). For instance, the Los Angeles office, according Habimana, has been known to ask married travelers making a solo trip to São Paulo to provide a letter from their spouse saying it's OK for them to make the journey. That rule doesn't apply in Atlanta, but the Atlanta office is known as one of the slowest—Habimana has seen visa processing take up to 24 working days there.
What to Do: First, call your consular office to find out what their specific requirements are for procuring a visa. Then give yourself at least a month to go through the process. The Brazilian visa is also among the priciest—$140, plus $20 if you don't present your application in person.
Why Go: Trekking the stunningly beautiful Himalayas in Bhutan might sound like a dream come true—the country's marketing slogan is "Happiness is a place"—but the process for getting there is pretty involved.
Why It's Complicated: You need to go through a licensed tour agency in Bhutan, and among other things you need to prove you can afford to visit—all visitors commit to spending a set daily minimum amount, currently $200. This money goes toward accommodations, food, transportation, the overseas-agent commission, and guide services (a requirement for Bhutan). Note: On January 1, the rates are going up to $250 (for March to May, September to November) and $200 (for January, February, June to August, December). There are additional surcharges if you are traveling solo ($40 per day) or as a couple ($30 per person per day).
What to Do: Find a licensed tour agency that will work with you to organize your trip and obtain your visa—there is a directory at the Tourism Council of Bhutan website. Once approved, you don't get a visa stamp until you arrive in the country and pay $20.
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."
If you can get one at all…
Fee: $500 for a hajj (religious tourism) visa
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.
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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).