China: 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.
China is not unfamiliar with American visitors, so its visa process is pretty straightforward but makes the list for both the amount of detail required on the application—expanded in 2011 from two pages to four—and a steep $140 fee.
India: 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.
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.
Bhutan: 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.
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-$250 per person per night depending on what time of the year you go.
Russia: Cultural treasures like the Hermitage, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the historic brick towers of the Kremlin make enduring Russia's wearisome visa process worthwhile.
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. And securing a letter is only the beginning. 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.
Rio de Janeiro being named site of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics has helped boost Brazil's status as a must-do tourism destination in recent years—as if the giant party that is Carnival in Rio, the rain forests of the Amazon, the amazing Iguazú Falls, and one of the world's most beautiful cable car rides weren't enough.
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).
Iran: 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.
Iran is 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 the country.
(Catherine de Torquat/SuperStock)
Kazakhstan: 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.
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.
Saudi Arabia: 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.
Good luck going to see Saudi Arabia's sites—the country discourages visits by U.S. citizens and is currently issuing a limited amount of standard tourist visas.