7 Destinations Where US Citizens Have to Obtain a Visa Before Arrival

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A few years ago one of my friends made a costly mistake on his way to Myanmar.  He booked a ticket, packed his bags, and planned out a two-week itinerary.  He reserved hotels, purchased three intra-country flights, and watered his plants before heading to the airport.  After an 18-hour flight from Seattle to Thailand, he got in line to go through immigration before the final leg of his trip to Yangon.

When he approached the front of the line, he noticed multiple signs indicating a visa was required for entry.  This was the first time he’d read anything about needing a visa to enter Myanmar.  This didn’t matter to the customs agents, who advised him to leave the airport and visit the US consulate in Bangkok to apply for the correct paperwork.

Unfortunately, as you may know, immigration rules aren’t flexible.  So if you’re in this situation you could be out $1,000s if you booked non-refundable travel and have to pay for last minute accommodations.  And you’ll have little recourse for getting your money back, even the best credit card travel insurance benefits usually won’t cover you in this circumstance.

Make Sure to Get the Correct Visa if You Plan to Visit Myanmar.

Last year, I realized I had accumulated enough reward points with my Platinum Card® from American Express for two round-trip tickets from Denver to Myanmar!

In planning out this trip, obtaining a visa was at the top of my to-do list.  Although applying for a visa might not seem as glamorous as searching for the perfect hidden beach in Vietnam, you’ll need to go through this step to actually get there.

What You’ll Want to Understand About the Visa Process

Although there is a long list of countries US citizens can travel to without additional documentation, sometimes showing up at the airport with your passport isn’t enough.  Many countries require a visa for entry, and it’s important to understand a few of the basics of this process.  There are three common scenarios when it comes to obtaining a visa.

Some countries will allow you to obtain a visa upon arrival.  This means you’ll be able to get your visa at the airport when you arrive at your destination.  Sometimes you’ll pay a fee for your visa.  I had to buy a visa at the airport when I landed in Istanbul a few years ago.  It was a very straightforward process and didn’t take much time to complete.

Other countries require you to obtain a visa in advance, but they make it easy by offering an e-visa (electronic visa) option.  An e-visa can be obtained online, typically through a government website.  You’ll submit the required information, often you’ll pay a fee, and then print a copy of the e-visa after it’s emailed to you.  Carry this print out in your passport as proof of your visa.

The last group of countries require a visa prior to arrival and don’t offer the e-visa option.  You can still get a visa, but it might take a little longer and require a bit more work.  It’s especially important to read the requirements and understand the process of obtaining a visa for these countries so you don’t run into any issues when you’ve landed at the airport.

Remember, your passport alone isn’t always a golden ticket to unlimited travel access.  And unless you don’t mind taking a few days out of your trip to hang out in line at the Embassy, it’s a good idea to do the research and be prepared!

US Citizens Must Obtain a Visa in Advance to Enter These 7 Countries

Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list, and regulations change frequently enough that it’s important to check the US State Department website and the specific Embassy of the country you’re traveling to for updates before you plan your next trip.  Additionally, while there are many different types of visas (working, business, holiday, etc.) this article will focus solely on tourist visas for each country.

1.   Myanmar

Walking Through Ancient Stupas Near Inle Lake in Myanmar.
Visa type:   There are two e-visa options available for tourist travel in Myanmar, a tourist visa and a tourist visa express. Details:   The process for acquiring the e-visa or the e-visa express is the same, but the express version is expedited so you’ll receive it within 24 hours.  The non-express version should take between 3-5 days to process.  On a tourist visa, you’ll be allowed to stay in the country for up to 28 days.  The time period starts once your visa is stamped upon entry.

It’s also important to note that the validity of the visa is only good for 90 days after it’s issued.  So plan accordingly!  Don’t apply for your visa too early, otherwise, it might expire by the time you arrive.

Cost:   The express tourist e-visa costs $56 and the regular tourist e-visa costs $50. How to apply:   To apply for this visa, go to the official Myanmar government website and start the process.  You’ll need to fill out a form, submit payment, then check your email for the e-visa.  Print out the paperwork for the visa and place it in your passport so it’s easily accessible.  Your visa will be stamped on arrival.  Remember it’s important to select the correct port of entry with your application.  You might be denied entry to the country if you try to enter through a different port than is indicated on your visa.  When you exit the country, you can depart from any port.

2.   Vietnam

Boats Docked in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Visa type:   There are three different ways to get a visa for Vietnam.  You can apply online, go in person at a Vietnamese Embassy in the United States, or work with an independent travel agency to secure your “letter of approval” that will grant you a visa upon arrival.  A letter of approval must be secured in advance of your arrival in the country. Details:   A single entry e-visa is the most common type of tourist visa.  This visa is valid for a maximum of 30 days from the date of entry and grants you one entry into the country.  That means, if you leave after two weeks and want to return a week later, you’ll need a new visa.  Processing time typically takes about three days. Cost:   An e-visa costs $25. How to apply:   To apply for an e-visa, you’ll need to fill out the appropriate form online, pay the $25 fee, and check your email for a confirmation code (this should arrive within three days).  Once you have the code, enter it here.  Then print out your e-visa and make sure you have it ready to show once you go through immigration at the airport in Vietnam.

2.   Brazil

An Aerial View of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Visa type:   Obtaining a tourist visa to travel to Brazil used to be a lengthy process that required a trip to the nearest consulate or embassy.  But recently, Brazil started offering a tourist e-visa option for citizens of several countries, and the US made the list!  Japan, Canada, and Australia did as well.  Now it’s so much easier to travel to Brazil. Details:   The e-visa is offered through VFS Global, a private company that contracts with the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Other companies that claim to offer this e-visa might not be legitimate or might charge additional fees, so it’s best to always apply directly through VFS.  The visa is good for a maximum stay of 90 days from the date of entry. Cost:   $44.24 How to apply:   The application process is pretty straightforward.  First, you’ll need to register on the VFS Global website where it says “apply now.”  You’ll do this by creating a username (your email) and password.  Once you’re registered, you will receive an email with a unique link to your application form.  Important note – you have just one chance to use this link.  If for some reason, you close the screen and try to click on the link to take you back, you’ll see a message indicating you need to register again.

Fill out this application.  Then, you’ll pay the e-visa fee.  You should see an email with your e-visa (attached as a PDF document) within 10 days.  Once you receive your electronic visa, you must print it out and have it ready to show with your passport upon entry.

3.   India

Confluence Of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Rivers in India
Visa type:   There is an e-visa option for travel to India.  While there are several commercial companies that claim they will expedite your India visa for an additional fee, it’s always recommended to acquire your visa from the official India government site. Details:   You’ll need to make sure you have two blanks pages in your passport and that your passport won’t expire for more than six months from your entry date.  The tourist visa is good for a max stay of 60 days within the country.  The visa expires 120 days after it is issued, so be sure you don’t apply for it too early. Cost:   A tourist e-visa should cost ~$102 for US residents How to apply:   You can apply for this visa online.  You will need to upload a photo of yourself and your passport as part of the process.  Once you have applied and paid the fee, the e-visa will be sent to your email.  Be sure to print off the visa so you have a paper copy when you’re going through immigration in India.

5.   Bhutan

Visit the Mountainside Taktshang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Visa type:   No e-visa option is available for US citizens at this time. Details:   Until the 1960s, Bhutan was largely cut off from the rest of the world and the only method of entry was on foot.  Now, the borders are open to tourists, but the country is very strict about who they let in and how they manage tourism.  For this reason, Bhutan has become a bit notorious in the travel circuit for their very specific (and expensive) visa process.  For some, this adds to the draw of visiting a place with such limited access.  For others, the process might seem too intimidating and pricey to even consider.  All tourists hoping to acquire a visa must apply through ABTO (the Association of Bhutanese Tourist Operators). Cost:   $40 for a visa, plus your daily tourism tariff (which includes guide fees, accommodation, food, and travel expenses).  A typical daily tariff is ~$250, but this ranges depending on the tour and the guide service you’ve hired.  It’s not cheap, but if off the beaten path travel is your thing, this might be the ultimate spot to find it. How to apply:   There are several important steps you’ll need to take in order to obtain permission to enter Bhutan.  First, you must hire a tour guide.  You can find a list of registered guides here.  After you hire a guide, you’ll put together an itinerary – this will dictate how much you’ll need to pay for your stay in Bhutan.  Rates fluctuate.  After the itinerary is set, and you’ve sent payment, your guide will submit your application for a visa.  Approval takes ~1 week.  When your visa is approved your tour guide will send you a copy via email.  Print this off and make sure to have it with your passport for entry into the country.

6.   Russia

The Church of the Savior on Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia
Visa type:   Visa issued by the Russian Embassy or Consulate prior to arrival (no e-visa option available). Details:   Every person who wants to receive a tourist visa to visit Russia must have a sponsor.  This could be the hotel where you are planning to stay, the travel company planning your trip, or a friend or relative living in Russia.  The sponsor will be contacted to help if you need a visa extension or have any issues with entry.  A standard tourist visa allows a US citizen to stay in the country for up to 90 days, but the sponsor must indicate this time frame on the visa.  Because the application process is both complicated and very specific, it’s advisable to use a professional service to organize your visa application.  It’s totally worth the extra fee to ensure you’re not rejected due to a small mistake on your application. Cost:   This varies depending on the service you use.  For this article, I researched G3, as it was recommended by several different sources.  With G3, the service starts at $99 in addition to the $128 cost of a single-entry tourist visa.  The cost increases if you need an expedited visa. How to apply:   To apply for this visa, it’s a good idea to use a professional service.  The process will vary depending on the service you use, but there are a lengthy set of requirements for anyone who wants to travel to Russia on a tourist visa.  You’ll need to fill out the application for a visa and (if you don’t already have someone in Russia who is sponsoring your visit) you’ll also have to fill out the “invitation” form.  You’ll mail these documents to the visa service and pay the fee.  Once you’ve completed the process, your visa will arrive in the mail.

Several friends who have traveled to Russia confirmed this process was indeed very detailed and that a small error on your application could easily lead to your visa being denied.  When you’re in the country, it’s also important to keep your paperwork on you at all times, as it’s common for tourists to be stopped by a government official who requests to see your passport and visa.

7.   China

My Friend Dan Shot This Photo of the Great Wall During His Trip to China.
Visa type:    Tourist visa, no e-visa option is available. Details:   To enter the country you must have a current passport (that won’t expire for at least 6 months) and your tourist visa.  Processing time for the tourist visa is approximately 4 business days (express visas will process in 2-3 business days). Cost:   A single entry visa costs $140.  This allows you to enter China one time, but if you need a multiple entry visa there isn’t any additional charge.  So it might make sense to apply for the multiple entry visa, just in case.  If you need express service, you’ll pay an extra fee.  If you aren’t applying in person, and are using a second party service to apply, it will cost you even more. How to apply:   You will need to apply through the Chinese Embassy or Consulate assigned to your state.  A complete list can be found here.  For example, I live in Colorado, so I’d have to apply through the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.  This is where it gets tricky.  You can’t mail in your application or submit it online.  You’ll need to either show up in person or hire an agent to complete this for you.  If you aren’t near the Embassy or Consulate, a third party agent is your best option.  Note that these agents will need you to mail all of your paperwork plus your actual passport.  Don’t worry, this is part of the process and they will send your passport back with the visa before you actually need to travel.  You might also need to include your hotel information, and show proof of your return ticket in order to qualify.

Other Countries Where You’ll Need Visa Before Arriving

While only 7 countries were highlighted in this post, there are many more that require a visa before arrival.  Some countries allow an e-visa, and others do not.  Be sure to do your research when planning a trip to any of these countries which all currently require a visa prior to arrival as some don’t offer and e-visa option:

  • Afghanistan
  • Angola
  • Azerbaijan
  • Chad
  • Cuba
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Eritrea
  • Gambia
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Libera
  • Libya
  • Madagascar
  • Malawi
  • Mali
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sierra Leone
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Venezuela
  • Yemen

What type of experiences have you encountered when attempting to schedule a visa before your departure?  Was it easy or frustrating?

Did you ever find yourself in a tough spot without a visa upon arrival?  Please share your experiences with me in the comments section below!

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