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  • Writer's pictureGunnar Garfors

The World’s 15 Hardest Countries to Visit

Hellow! Just don’t expect any explanations if you are denied entry to certain countries. This lovely and personal Post-it sticker note is from the Eritrean embassy in Stockholm.

The world’s least visited countries are not necessarily the most difficult to get to. I am using three criteria to determine which countries are the most inaccessible, as well as my own overall experience of getting to the countries.

Why you would like to know? There is a reason why you are reading And it isn’t to find the cleanest pool at all-inclusive resort joints in the Bahamas or Gran Canaria. Which will be your bucket list; The hardest 15 below or the world’s 25 least visited? 7 countries are on both lists. I have been to all 198 countries, and I know which list I would have chosen first if I were to start from scratch.

a) Visa availability

The most important criteria. If you cannot get a visa, you can not legally visit the country. If you try to do so illegally you may face prosecution or worse. So, if you are not required to obtain a visa in advance to visit a country, it will not be on this list. Some countries issue visa on arrival, but to me that is as easy as not having to get one at all. Just bring cash and a couple of photographs. Do note that I am writing this as the holder of a Norwegian passport. This list will therefore be more relevant to people with western passports. Norway is however not a part of the EU, and EU members will in some cases not require visas where Norwegians do. Note that getting a visa to ‘a difficult country’ is usually easier and faster from one of their neighbouring countries than from embassies closer to home.

b) The security situation

Of course, most often you should refrain from entering if there is a high risk of danger in the country in question. Then again, even countries engaged in wars or civil unrest usually have areas that are less affected than others and therefore safer to visit. So if you really want in, there is usually a ‘safe’ spot.

c) Transport.

Most countries are fairly well covered with regards to planes, trains or automobiles, but some have a severe shortage of scheduled transport options. A little patience will go a long way, just keep in mind that sometimes the only available flight leaves from a specific airport which itself might be out of your way. Bring a book. And a pillow.

The “worst” fifteen

If you are on a mission to visit all countries of the world, I’d recommend you to not save the following 15 for last. Unless you are fond of severe restlessness and stress ulcers while waiting to be allowed into them.

15. Bhutan

Tiger’s Nest.

Why so inaccessible? First of all, you will need to pay your trip in advance. I am not talking about the plane ticket, I am talking about the all-inclusive package inside Bhutan. It has to be paid to a Bhutanese travel agent. Via money transfer, which makes it more of a hassle than using your worn Am Ex card. The all-inclusive trips have given rise to the rumour that Bhutan is a very expensive country to visit. The 200-300 USD per day (depending on the season and whether you travel alone or not) will however cover “everything.” As in accommodation, transport within the country, guides, meals and the tourist tax.

You only need to worry about drinks and souvenirs. Just don’t mix the first with the latter or you will end up with a lot of wooden souvenir penises. Penises in such a religious country? Well, even strictly religious people need penises to impregnate each other. Besides, the symbols of erect penises are intended to drive away “the evil eye and malicious gossip,” and it isn’t a buddhist symbol, but one of Bön, an old and unorthodox religion. Do note, you won’t see any penises painted on buildings in Thimphu or major towns, only in rural villages, so you can still travel to [certain parts of] the country together with your mother-in-law. Then again, who wants to travel with mother-in-laws anyway?

Why you should still bother to go If huge erect penises aren’t enough, throw in the fantastic mountains, the incredible Buddhist temples and Tiger’s Nest, and you will be in awe. It doesn’t hurt that people are very friendly too. Unless you start chatting up local girls. That may cause trouble and threats of brutal beating. Allegedly.

How I got in I needed to produce a little patience and had to be willing to pay my trip in advance. I did, and I was picked up in the airport by my guides. Not difficult, just a little inconvenient.Any loopholes? 

The guides will leave you to explore Thimphu on your own if you insist. If you do, find the karaoke bar in a cellar bar near the clock tower. It is the only place where I have seen karaoke with the option of having a live band play to your singing. Priceless!

14. Kiribati

Someone’s gotta go there.

Why so inaccessible? Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribas” – there are no letter “s” in their alphabet, so “ti” is pronounced “s”) is in the middle of the Pacific. Literally. I mean, most Pacific countries are often said to be, but Kiribati really is. It stretches 3,500 kilometers from east to west. Both the capital Tarawa and Kiritimati (Christmas Island) are served by international flights, but only twice a week. The remoteness of the country isn’t the only reason why it is the 4th least visited country in the world. Entering it isn’t all that easy either, unless you are from one of 60 countries. I am not from any of those and had to apply for a visa from Kiribati’s sole consulate in Europe, conveniently located in Llanddewi Rhydderch in Wales. That was relatively straightforward, once I actually found the embassy. The border police is more thorough than any other in the Pacific, with the possible exception of Australia, so do not attempt to go there without a visa. Then again, they probably won’t even let you on the plane without one.

Why you should still bother to go Did you ever see any cartoons about people on paradise islands? Kiribati is like that, just add facilities. Some facilities. There are in fact several good hotels in Tarawa alone. Diving is fantastic, and so is the available seafood. Some services do not see many competitors though. There is one coffee shop and one registered taxi driver in the country.

How I got in I got my visa from the friendly consul in Wales. I flew in on Air Pacific (soon to be renamed Fiji Airways) from Nadi. Kiribati is also occasionally served by Our Airline from Nauru and Majuro, Marshall Islands.

Any loopholes? Do not worry about getting a visa if you’re from one of the 60 lucky countries. You will then get your essential visa stamp upon arrival.

13. Nauru

That’s it.

Why so inaccessible? Only one airline, Our Airline, serves Nauru, and not every day. Do not expect to find it in your favourite flight ticket search engine either. A visa is needed to go there, and how many embassies or consulates of Nauru have you seen? To be fair, they are actually represented in four countries; Australia, Fiji, Taiwan and Thailand.

Why you should still bother to go It is one of the few countries in the world you can actually run around. Just remember that the country is virtually on the Equator, so don’t attempt to do so at noon. It is also THE least visited country in the world. Certainly a country for your bucket list!

How I got in I had been a little lazy, not bothering to get my visa in advance. Our Airline is however well connected in Nauru, and the staff at the airport in Brisbane managed to talk customs into issuing me a visa on arrival after 10 minutes on the phone. I was very lucky! The customs officer in charge in Nauru greeted me with few words:

– Are you the tourist?

Everyone else on board were locals or in the country for business. Business in Nauru? In a country with less than 9,000 people? I was there at the time of an international fishing conference.

Any loopholes? Having the Our Airline staff talk me into the country without a visa just before departure worked for me, but it is not a strategy I would recommend to others.

12. Russia

When in Russia, do as the Russians. Drive a Lada Niva.

Why so inaccessible? The only country that stands between Norway and North Korea has a well-deserved reputation for what seems like meaningless bureaucracy. You will need an invitation to visit the country, although a letter from your hotel will in most cases suffice. Have you not filled in your visa application with extreme caution, you may have to reapply and again stand in line for hours at end.

Why you should still bother to go I am sure that you will find something interesting to do in the world’s largest country. And then there is vodka, second to none.

How I got in Patience, my friend. I wouldn’t show the consular staff that you get annoyed or mad, though. The Russian paper pushers would take personal pleasure in it.

Any loopholes? Actually, yes. You can stay in St. Petersburg for up to 72 hours if you arrive by boat. All visa free. Just don’t tell the bureaucrats.

11. Uzbekistan

My semi-preferred mode of transport in Uzbekistan.

Why so inaccessible? You will have to go through the hassle of obtaining an invitation by someone. As with Russia, a hotel is usually OK. If your stay exceeds three days, you also have to register with the Local Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Not very unusual in former Soviet republics, but nevertheless.

Why you should still bother to go Uzbekistan is the Silk Road in a nutshell. The old and ancient buildings of Samarkand and Bukhara are not to be missed. Nor is the nightlife in Tashkent. Just remember to bring an extra backpack for your money. 100USD worth will give you a high stack of Uzbekistani Som. It won’t fit in your pocket.

How I got in The process wasn’t all that bad, really. It just took a while. As in so long that we almost had to cancel the trip. When we boarded our prehistoric plane from St. Petersburg to Samarkand, we wished we had.

Any loopholes? No known legal ones.

10. Syria

The souk in Damascus before the civil war.

Why so inaccessible? There is a civil war there. Chemical weapons may be used. Whereas accessing the country may be possible, leaving again in one piece is less certain.

Why you should still bother to go Actually I’d say you wait a while until Damascus shows a little bit more of its well-known hospitality. And possibly change its government.

How I got in The visa situation is a little uncertain at the moment due to the civil war. I travelled there a few years ago, and I then got my visa on the border in exchange for a couple of dollar notes. I travelled by shared taxi from Beirut.

Any loopholes? Quite a few people actually travel to Syria and volunteer to fight for the “rebel” forces. I would not recommend that.

9. Turkmenistan

Door to Hell. Photo: Marius Arnesen.

Why so inaccessible? You will only get a tourist visa to Turkmenistan by signing up for a guide. As with Bhutan, you will need to pay up front.

Why you should still bother to go Parts of Ashgabat, the capital, is virtually empty despite very impressive and expensive looking buildings. Do also check out the 12 meter tall gold plated statue of the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. It stands on a 63 meter tall concrete structure called the tripod. The statue itself always looks at the sun. Come on, imagine you were a dictator with unlimited power and money; You would so have done the same!

You also need to go to “Door to Hell” in Karakum desert. It is the most underestimated tourist attraction ever. Except that there are no tourists. All the better!

How I got in Four of us, all guys, had organized the trip through a local agency and drove in to the border by taxi from Mashad, Iran. After having walked across and sorted out formalities, we were met by our guide Oleg. He turned out to be quite a character.

– Welcome to Turkmenistan! Are you here for drinks or for girls? – Hehe…I am sure we will have some drinks, but we have girlfriends at home. – So? – But Oleg, do you not believe in love? – Love was invented by the French. They were too cheap to pay for prostitutes.

This mother of ultimate responses came without hesitation. Say no more. Oleg comes highly recommended. He is over two meters tall, and I challenge you to drink him under the table. I know someone who managed.

Any loopholes? Your option is to get a transit visa. This is possible if you are driving or biking through the country. You will then be on your own and can explore more or less what you want along your predetermined route.

8. Somalia

Thank you for the tea!

Why so inaccessible? There are big challenges when it comes to both government and infrastructure in Somalia, although the situation has improved greatly recently. Just finding an embassy might be a challenge, but I’d go for the Somali Embassy in Turkey. Turkish Airlines can take you directly to Mogadishu three times a week.

Why you should still bother to go Piracy has plummeted and the government has regained control in Mogadishu. Your friends will love receiving a postcard from your holiday in Somalia and you will love hearing about how brave you were for having gone there in the first place. It is the second least visited country in the world. Possibly for a reason.

How I got in I applied for a visa to Somaliland in the north from its consulate in London. The process only took an hour, but the staff there ensured me I was completelly mad for wanting to go there.

– Why do you want to go to Somaliland? Are you crazy? Do you want to die?

They still issued me the visa, strangely enough. I travelled straight there from London, only to discover that there were no hotels in the town of my choice. I ended up sleeping in the mayor’s “house.” In his guestroom. That left the vice mayor less than happy as he then had to sleep in the living room. You win some, you lose some.

Any loopholes? A Canadian tourist just travelled to Mogadishu and managed to talk his way in. This was a few years ago, and the situation has improved, but do not expect many fellow travellers.

7. Libya

Clear speech on a house in Tobruk, Libya.

Why so inaccessible? Tourism was tightly controlled under Gadaffi and getting a visa was a little like betting on fruit machines. You will win sooner or later, but it might take you a lot of time and money. The current visa situation is still not transparent.

Why you should still bother to go Go there to show support to the people who are trying to build a democracy after Gadaffi’s 42-year “First of September Revolution.” And why not pop by the ruins of Leptis Magna, an ancient city of the Roman empire? You can thank me for the tip later.

How I got in I visited when Gadaffi was still alive, during the civil war in 2011. The opposition was very happy to see journalists in the country and let me in on a whim when I showed them my press card.

Any loopholes? None known to me.

6. Pakistan

The only real pizza “hut” I have ever seen is on the beach in Karachi. It is however a licenced franchise and looks better from the other side. Thanks for the info, @myrakhan!

Why so inaccessible?

Whether a tourist visa is issued or not depends on the time of year, the mood of the government and its assessed threat levels. You may get your visa one day, your friend not so the next. This uncertainty can make Pakistan a tricky country to visit as a tourist. Do however expect speedy service if the country is currently open.

Why you should still bother to go

Pakistan is a vast country with beautiful scenery and fantastic food. And Osama bin Laden lived there. For better or for worse.

How I got in

I wanted to visit at a time that was less than ideal from the government’s point of view. There was no way I would get a tourist visa. My press card did yet again secure entry.

Any loopholes?

Does a press card count as a loophole?

5. Afghanistan

Why so inaccessible?

Common Afghan cargo transport.

I don’t really think I have to answer this question.

Why you should still bother to go The scenery in large parts of the country is breathtaking. Afghanistan was also one of the most modern countries in the world in the early 70s. The contrast to what it is like now is huge. Women who have lived to see both times must be really depressed.

How I got in My press card was needed. Again. The Afghani embassy in Oslo only issues visas to the press and military personell. Neighbouring countries may be more lenient when it comes to tourist visas.

Any loopholes? You can always join the army.

4. Saudi Arabia

No, it isn’t a huge bottle opener.

Why so inaccessible? The country has so much oil that there is no reason for them to bother about additional revenues. Getting a tourism visa has long been a challenge, although it should technically be possible if you order an all-inclusive trip through a local travel agency. Of course, women cannot go unless they are accompanied by a husband, son or another male family member.

Why you should still bother to go There is more than sand to see in Saudi Arabia. Sort of. Sand can be fun though. Try a desert barbeque, a desert safari or a desert rally.

Of course, if you are a Muslim you have to go to Mecca. If you are a non-Muslim you cannot go to Mecca.

How I got in I managed to get a transit visa which allowed me to stay 72 hours in the country. I had  a ticket to Riyadh from Khartoum and onwards to London.

Any loopholes? The transit visa trick mentioned above is as close as you will get to a loophole. It may or may not work.

3. Equatorial Guinea

A relative safe photo to take. No police in sight.

Why so inaccessible? The country is ruled by Dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, although he prefers President as his title. The distribution of the massive oil wealth is extremelly unequal,  it has one of the world’s worst human rights track records and is allegedly very involved in human trafficking. Why would they let in tourists, or witnesses?

Why you should still bother to go You will rarely experience a stricter control of people and places. That is the reason to go there? Well, the negative experiences there will make almost all future destinations seem like fun fairs in comparison. There is also a fair amount of wildlife there and some beautiful beaches. If you can stomach enjoying it there.

How I got in I tried all my tricks at the consulate in Douala, Cameroon, but without any luck. In Libreville, Gabon I somehow managed to secure an interview with the ambassador. I proved to him that I had a fair amount of knowledge about the country and convinced him that I only wanted to go there as a tourist. In this country a press card will do you no favours. Rather the contrary.

Any loopholes? Obtain a US passport. American citizens are unique in Equatorial Guinea. They are the only ones that do not need a visa to visit. Did anyone ask why?

2. Eritrea

Eritrea can be a nightmare to obtain access to.

Why so inaccessible? The country is a one party state. It is the only country that ranks below North Korea(!) on the press freedom index. Even if you fill out the application form very carefully, it may still returned with your passport. Also, expect the process to take 6-8 weeks. The biggest obstacle is that you never know whether you will be accepted or not. The uncertainty stops people from even applying.

How I got in I applied and reapplied. The second time around I added a separate letter describing how much I had heard about the country and why I wanted to visit. I was eventually granted access.

Any loopholes? It’s one of the worst police states in the world with a heavily guarded border. Don’t even think about sneaking in.

1. Angola

Soviet style residential buildings in Angola.

Why so inaccessible? Angola has a lot of oil money these days. Europe does not. Things have certainly turned around, something the former Portugese colony has clearly noticed. The visa regime is quite harsh to prevent unemployed Europeans to go to jobhunting there.

Why you should still bother to go There is a lot to see in the huge country, although do expect enormous differences when it comes to the distribution of wealth. Luanda, the traffic plagued capital, cannot in any way be compared to the country side. The border police will also relieve you of any local money you may have on you when you leave the country. It’s a lumbago friendly practice and rather considerate.

How I got in I tried getting a visa through Angola’s embassies in both Stockholm and Johannesburg. The embassy in Sweden called me after I had sent them exactly what they asked for on their website.

– We need more supporting documents. – I just sent you everything you asked for on your website. – The website has not been updated since 2003. – Well, that isn’t my fault, is it?

They even refused to send my passport back, then finally reluctantly did so after five phone calls. We do not go to the same dinner parties.

In the end I booked a flight with a 13 hour stopover in Luanda and somehow managed to talk myself into the country. I referred to the following on the country’s visa application form:

“The transit visa can be exceptionally granted at the border post to a foreign citizen who, in a continuous journey is forced to interrupt it to make a compulsory stop-over by the means of transport utilized.”

They very exceptionally let me enter their country. I would not bet on them letting anyone doing so ever again.

Any loopholes? I think I managed to take advantage of the loophole, although I suspect it won’t be open much longer. The border to Angola’s enclave Cabinda is possibly easier to cross, but it might be a long shot.

Why is North Korea not on the list?

A ‘very normal’ North Korean family posing with me.

North Korea is actually an easy and safe place to visit, given that you are not South Korean. The process of obtaining a visa takes a week or two. Once inside the country, you are required to have two guides with you at all times though. Flying into North Korea can be quite an experience, especially if you chose to do so by Air Koryo.

Your list may vary

I should also add that this list has been written based exclusively on my own experiences. Other people may have no problems at all with any of these countries, or they may experience huge problems entering countries not even on this list. That is the beauty of travelling for you; You never know what you’re going to get, see, taste or experience. I love it!


P.S. I refuse to be held responsible should you follow any of the above advice and still find yourself not admitted to any of the countries mentioned, the disappointment experienced should you be let in without any problems and hence lack of related stories to tell or the inconvenience caused for your relatives should you be killed or injured trying. Country situations do change frequently and usually without any notice.  

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