Afghanistan is at war, be careful when visiting.
I last wrote a post about the most difficult countries to visit for a tourist in 2013, but the world sure changes fast, so it is time for an update. I have in the meantime finished visited every country in the world twice, and I have never used a visa agency to do the dirty work for me. Easy is boring. And expensive.
What constitutes a hard country to visit depends on several things:
Some of my passports.
Your passport: Some passports are much better than others. And let’s face it, just having a passport is a luxury. Most people don’t. I have a Norwegian passport, which is luckily for me one of the strongest.
Your budget: With too little money many countries are off limits. This goes without saying, but it is clearly easy to forget how lucky many of us are. I have observed a lot of people bragging about their recent country conquests to others that simply cannot afford it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to or that they are less of a traveller than you.
Logistics: There is always a train, an old Norwegian saying goes. These days there is always a plane. Or is there? Six countries do not have airports, and the least connected country in the world, Tuvalu, can only be visited by air 3 or 4 days a week (depending on the season).
Security: War, conflict or recent terror attacks may scara away any of us. Often tourist visas aren’t even issued, but some foolish people (myself included) still go for it. My excuse? I was writing a book about the world’s 20 least visited countries, which involves a handful with security issues.
The visa situation: This can be a showstopper for some people, regardless of their passport or bank account.
In reality only the last two really matter, for persistent travellers, and I have therefore focused on those. Even Tuvalu with its very limited flights can easily be visited with a bit of planning, and sometimes patience as tropical storms may ground the propeller planes for weeks. Anyone, regardless of passport, will be allowed to enter thanks to the country’s generous visa policy. And still, only 800 tourists a year take advantage. I guess the country isn’t great at marketing itself. There is also only one hotel (plus a lot of guesthouses).
Let’s cut to the chase. I have listed the countries in alphabetical order. But if your goal is to visit every country in the world, please do not leave all these until last as that will probably wear you out, in visa frustration. When that is said, do not visit them first either. I recommend you to accumulate quite a bit of travel experience before visiting these. They are the hardest countries to visit for a reason.
Afghanistan: The capital Kabul is a war zone, and you should know someone there if you plan a visit. I recommend you to visit the province of Bamiyan (get a domestic flights from Kabul where you just transit). Bamiyan is the touristy part of the country with hundreds of thousands of local tourists a year.
The hospitality in Afghanistan is amazing. I was invited to have lunch with these guys in a plumber’s shop.
Algeria: Most of the country is safe to visit, but there are some dodgy regions in the south. Getting a visa usually takes three weeks. Why so hard, then? You can as a general rule only get the visa in your country of residence.
The best way to explore Algiers is by foot.
Central African Republic (CAR): There are 12 000 UN troops in Bangui, which is therefore rather safe. You shouldn’t venture outside the city without consulting locals first, though. You will get your visa in a day in a neighbouring country.
Desiré showed me around his country, Central African Republic.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): I unsuccessfully tried to get a visa in several African embassies, but finally struck gold in Benin. It only took me 60 mins to get my visa in Cotonou. Just be aware that there is a lot of fighting around the country, you shouldn’t leave Kinshasa or Goma without a local guide.
I am in the Deomcratic Republic of the Congo, by the Congo River with Congo Brazzaville in the background. #congoedout
Eritrea: The situation is likely to improve shortly as the 20 year long war with Ethiopia has finally ended and the borders have been opened. All thanks to Ethiopia’s new young and progressively thinking prime minister, Abiy Ahmed who took the initiative to end the war. Getting a visa can still be a bit tricky, though. Apply at your nearest embassy eight weeks or more before your trip. No embassy in your country? Then Tekeste is your man, he might even be able to sort you out with a visa on arrival.
Is it a plane? Is it a bird? No, it is the Fiat Tagliero building in Asmara, Eritrea.
Equatorial Guinea: People with a US passport are the only ones in the world that can visit the country without a visa. The rest of us will likely face some difficulties. I tried almost every EG embassy in Africa, without success. In the end, I managed to get my visa much closer to home. I went to the embassy in London (the one in Berlin should also be quite helpful), just be aware that you need to provide proof of funds (over 2000 british pounds in your bank account) and a letter from the police saying that you are not a recent criminal.
The island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea is exceptionally green and fertile, in large parts due to exceptional amounts of rain.
Iraq: Visiting Erbil or Sulaymaniyah is safe and hassle free, you will get a visa on arrival. It’s part of Kurdistan, but also part of Iraq. The security situation in Baghdad has also improved a lot, but getting a visa can take a lot of time. It took my three weeks in Oslo, but one of my friends got a tourist visa in a day in Amman, Jordan.
Shopping in Erbil, Iraq.
Libya: The country doesn’t issue tourist visas. There is a loophole, though. Sherwes Travel can get you in on a business visa, and provide you with a guide and driver. But it won’t come cheap.
Libya is currently off-limt for tourists, but there is a loophole.
Nauru: The only country in the Pacific which can be a hassle. That is primarily due to the Australian refugee camp on the island. The country got so tired of journalists that came only to write negative news reports, that they slapped a fee of 8000 Australian dollars on all visa applications by media professionals. And that was just a processing fee which didn’t guarantee a visa (it actually probably virtually guaranteed that you wouldn’t get a visa). Most journalists therefore started applying as tourists, which make immigartion officers in Nauru very suspicious of any applicant (no surprise with only 120 tourists a year). That slowed down the process for everyone. I’d recommend you to apply at least 8 weeks before you plan on going – via email, more if you actually are a journalists (even if you are in fact going on holiday).
In such a small island nation as Nauru, swimming is not surprisingly a favourite pass time activity.
Nigeria: Prosessing time for a visa is about a week, but you can only apply at the embassy in the country you live in. An option is to get a transit visa on arrival, if you have less than 48 hours between flights. Remember to bring passport photos and cash, though.
It is quite sad, but all sorts of dead animals are for sale in Nigerian markets.
Russia: Oh, the bureaucracy. Just make sure your application is filled out correctly, and that everything on the form has been answered. It is otherwise unlikely to be processed at all. Something they won’t bother telling you until you return to pick up what should have been your visa.
Gotta love a good, old Lada Niva.
Saudi Arabia: The country has finally started issuing tourist visas to citizens from many nations, but still only for certain events. Check out Sharek for a list of events and to apply for your evisa. You should get your visa in a day or two, Both men and woman are elegible.
In front of Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Somalia: The country is not hard to visit if you are happy to go to Somaliland or Puntland, two self-declared states. Neither is however acknowledged by any UN country, so they are still formally part of Somalia. Flying into Hargaisa, the capital of Somaliland, is safe and easy (although you need a visa which you get in a day at their “tourist offices” in Addis Abeba, Djibouti or London). To visit the rest of the country, you will need to use a travel agency that provides you with a guide, a driver and armed security guards that will ride on the back of your pickup truck. For Somalia, I recommend using travel company Visit Mogadishu.
On their way to the fishmarket in Mogadishu, Somalia.
South Sudan: The country doesn’t normally issue tourist visas, and you will get a letter of invitation from a company in the country. They used to accept a letter from your hotel, but recent reports indicate that that is no longer the case. The embassy in Kampala, Uganda is allegedly your best bet. I managed to get a press visa in Oslo, Norway in two weeks, but they required a letter from my employer and a letter from my hotel in Juba.
Outboard engine repairmen in Juba, South Sudan.
Sudan: Not particularly tricky, but rather slow. Apply at least 4-5 weeks before your trip.
Four wise men in Sudan.
Syria: Getting a visa to Syria will set you back a bit of money, as you need help from a travel company on the inside. You should stay within Damascus and Aleppo unless you have a guide. I recently wrote this piece: How to visit Syria.
Playing above the streets in Damascus.
Turkmenistan: This country can be a walk in the park to visit, or difficult as hell. The reason? A travel company will have to sort out your itinerary and have a guide pick you up in the airport or on the border. In order for you to get that far, they must also provide you with a letter of inviation (LOI) that enables you to get your visa on arrival. The problem is that only the Ministry of Tourism can issue such letters. Unfortunately, 20-30 percent of tourists will not get this LOI, and neither the travel company nor you will be informed about why. The solution is often to apply the next calendar year, some speculate that there are tourist quotas for each country per year. I was rejected 6 times in 2018, but I finally managed to find a loophole.
Most women in Turkmenistan wear traditional dresses while at work.
Yemen: Demand has exploded since I visited Aden in April, so the fixer I used now charges quite a lot per day and he only accepts media personell. A loophole is to travel to Oman (but get a multi entry visa to Oman or you won’t be let back in) and then make your way to the border. The easternmost province of Yemen is safe, and you will reportedly get in by paying the border police 100USD for a visa. The island of Socotra is another option, if you have your own yacht, or if you don’t mind hitch-hiking with a cement boat from Oman.
Not the kind of image you’d normally associate with Yemen.
But what about…?
Keep in mind that visa requirements can change on a minute’s notice, so please check with an embassy or ask at a travel forum online if in doubt. Secondly, there are other countries that many think are tricky to visit, but that aren’t. I have listed those that I can think of below alphabetically.
Angola: They now offer evisas (although the website has been known to be down, on occasion).
Bhutan: You will not be allowed to enter without a guide, which means that your entire trip must be paid for in full before you arrive. Go through a local travel agency, they will sort out everything for you as soon as you have paid (250-350USD per day depending on the season, including everything except drinks and souvenirs).
Burundi: It is easy to get a visa from the embassy in London. The embassy in Berlin is a bit harsher. Embassies in Burundi’s neighbouring countries can also help.
Chad: N’Djamena is a pretty safe city, just do not photograph without ensuring permission first. I got my visa at the embassy in Ivory Coast in 45 mins. It is allegedly also fast in Berlin.
Cuba: Most embassies issue tourist visas in 15 minutes. Just be aware that you will not be allowed to fly from the US, unless you have a US passport.
Iran: Visa on arrival or evisa for most countries. Citizens of the US and the UK will however have to apply for visas in the old facioned way, at an embassy.
Ivory Coast: No problem, apply for an evisa.
Liberia: Most visitors can get a visa on arrival, but police officers are likely to charge you exorbitant fees for it. There are plans to introduce evisas in 2019.
Mauritania: You’ll get a visa on arrival, whether arriving by air or at a land border crossing.
Niger: Getting a visa in a neighbouring country is rather straight-forward, and should take only 24 or 48 hours.
North Korea: You need to go through a travel company that cooperates with the North Korean tourism ministry, but that is an easy and straightforward process. Be aware that you will not be allowed to go anywhere without your two government guides. The one exception is on the train from China to Pyongyang (or vice-versa), where you will be left guide-free. The travel company will sort your visa out for you, typically in less than a week. I still recommend to apply 6-8 weeks in advance as tours tend to fill up (you can also travel on your own or as a couple, still with a guide of course, but that will typically cost more).
Pakistan: Not very difficult, unless you try to apply at any other embassy than the one in the country you reside in. They will in that case refuse to even consider your application.
Sierra Leone: You can easily get an evisa.
Venezuela: Caracas is a bit dodgy these days, I’d go elsewhere unless you know someone there. Most western countries get a visa on arrival, although people with US passports have more of a difficult time. Try your nearest consulate in the US, but expect a processing time of 3-4 weeks.
Do note that I cannot guarantee that the situation hasn’t changed since I revisited most of these in 2017/2018. Visa knowledge is best served fresh.