Which Country Is The Most Difficult To Visit? Here Are My Experiences So Far

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Which country is the most difficult to visit?

Which Country Is The Most Difficult To Visit?

“Which country is the most difficult to visit?” It’s a common question. The other members of Miles to Memories have asked me this. My family asks it. People search for it on Google. It’s often asked of people who travel a lot and/or travel to less common destinations. There’s not ONE answer for which country is the most difficult to visit (and the answer largely depends on the passport you hold). However, there are several countries I’ve been to that were difficult to visit. There are several remaining that I know will be difficult. If you’re thinking about international travel and wondering about this question, here are my experiences so far.

Countries I’ve Already Visited

I’ve been to 140 countries at this point. I’m hoping to visit every country in the world some day. (Note: how many countries you think there are is a very politically divisive discussion, but there are 193 members of the United Nations, which is usually the base point for counting. Is Taiwan a country? Why isn’t it a U.N. member? What about Kosovo? The Vatican? See how the issue of “number of countries” quickly spirals?)

Many of those countries were super easy to visit. Having a U.S. passport and going to Canada, for example: couldn’t be easier. Living in Germany for 2 years while in the army and taking a train to Austria? Didn’t even wake up for the border crossing.

Other countries that you’d think are difficult to visit aren’t difficult at all. North Korea is a perfect example. I went there in 2016. I signed up for a tour, sent in a scan off my passport, and that was it. Picked up my visa at the airport in Beijing when meeting up with my tour group for the flight to Pyongyang (yes, I flew Air Koryo, the world’s only 1-star airline).

That being said, some countries were really difficult to visit. Visas can be difficult to come by. Add political considerations into the mix (such as when countries get mad at the country your passport is from), and things can get stickier. Maybe the country is known for extracting bribes to get in. There are tons of issues you could run into. Here are the 3 countries I found most difficult to visit so far.

Difficult To Get Embassy To Issue Visa: Democratic Republic of Congo

I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa in 2019. My passport and visa application sat at the Democratic Republic of Congo embassy in D.C. for 5 weeks. Did I get the visa? Nope. I even used a visa agency who could go by in person to check on the application, which they did 3 days per week for 5 weeks. Eventually, I had to cancel my application, because it was time to start my trip. I needed to get my passport back in my hands. Guess whether I got my application fee back.

Instead, I had to pay over $400 for my hotel to sponsor me for visa on arrival at the airport. Rearranging my travel plans would’ve cost more than $400, so I did it. I hadn’t expected needing more than 5 weeks for a visa application when applying. That made this a really difficult country to visit. The last-minute headaches waiting for paperwork to get emailed to me while trying to board my flight sucked.

Not Safe & Needs Extra Precautions: Somalia

This one is probably on most people’s lists of which country is the most difficult to visit. Known for its long civil war depicted in Black Hawk Down, Somalia needs a lot of planning to visit. You cannot get a visa without someone in Somalia sponsoring you for it. If you’re going to work for an NGO, the U.N., or the military, they’ve got you covered. Coming for business negotiations? They’ll sponsor you for the visa. If you just want to see a new country, you need a tour agency with authorization from the government to sponsor you.

Somalia is difficult to visit
U.S. tank from Battle of Mogadishu, 1993

I may be one of few people who used 8,000 United MileagePlus miles to book the daily 5th Freedom flight from Djibouti to Mogadishu, Somalia on Turkish Airlines. At the airport, the tour agency shows up with their copy of your passport to match yours and say they’re sponsoring you. Then, you can pay to apply for the visa on the spot.

There are tons of security precautions taken by the agencies, the hotels, the airport, etc. to make sure you aren’t just showing up and wondering around on your own. Needing to hire a tour, send them a deposit, and them make sure you understand that they call the shots on safety makes this a difficult country to visit. The need to adjust to daily security updates also makes visiting difficult.

Consistently Difficult Passport Control Agents: United Kingdom

Surprised this is on my list? The United Kingdom has consistently been a difficult country for me to visit, despite going multiple times. Since turning 18, every time I’ve gone has been a struggle to enter. They consistently accuse me of trying/planning to enter the country to live there illegally. This despite the fact I’ve never stayed in the U.K. longer than 5 days.

The worst was a weekend trip to Scotland in 2013 while living in Germany. At one point, I told the officer that I was more worried about the army putting me in jail for not coming back for work on Monday than the U.K. kicking me out for staying too long. I gave up after an hour of back and forth with him yelling at me and generally being unprofessional. “Please give me back my passport so I can leave and find a flight back to Germany.”  Magically, the fact I gave up seemed to convince him I wasn’t trying to stay, and he let me in.

I know tons of people visit the U.K. without problems every day. I’m sure you’re already planning to comment about how they’re nice to you. They’ve consistently made it really difficult for me to visit. I’ve always been polite at passport control, but there’s something in their system telling them to bother me. For me, it’s difficult to visit.

Which country is the most difficult to visit?
Countries I have and haven’t visited.

Countries I Haven’t Visited Yet

There are countries I haven’t visited yet but expect to be difficult. Political issues play a role in 99% of those issues. I’m not here to discuss those, but it’s worth noting that the large majority of travel difficulties come from political decisions by a country to not give you a visa or not recognize your passport, etc. Here are the countries I haven’t been to yet that I expect to be difficult.

You Can’t Get There From Here: Syria

I’m sure this one surprises no one. In order to avoid foreigners coming to join the Islamic State/ISIS/Daesh, their borders are tightly controlled. There are very few crossing points into the country. To avoid journalists entering the country without declaring themselves, visas are often rejected. Because of political issues, U.S. passport holders are often rejected. Scratch that: they aren’t rejected, they just don’t get an answer.

That’s what happened to me when I tried to join a tour to Damascus leaving from Beirut, Lebanon. I applied for the visa through the tour agency 2 months in advance. The 3 people with U.S. passports on the tour never got an answer (not rejected, just no answer), while the 3 people with other passports were all approved. We couldn’t join the tour, so I canceled my trip to Lebanon to wait for when I can do the 2 together.

Darvaza Gas Crater
Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, image courtesy of Wikipedia

Difficult To Get Visa: Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan actually has fewer tourists per year than North Korea. Getting their visa is notoriously difficult. First, you need a Letter Of Invitation, and the embassies like to reject these for a myriad of reasons. Visiting Turkmenistan for the Darvaza gas crater (often called the “Gates of Hell”) is on my list. Unfortunately, Turkmenistan seems to make up the rules as they go.

Do they think you’re a Russian spy? Do you have a beard? Did you blink at the wrong time when talking to the passport control agent? Do you work in media as a journalist? Did you once talk to someone who speaks Russian and might be a journalist who blinks? You get the picture.

Lots Of Work If You’re From the U.S.: Iran

Due to not recognizing one another’s governments, people from Iran and the U.S. visiting each other’s countries can be quite difficult. Yes, you can get a visa. In fact, I had a visa for Iran in 2014 but wound up not going, due to political unrest in the country at the time.

The reason why I list this as difficult is because of special laws for visitors from the U.S. You must have a tour guide with you at any moment you are outside the hotel. That starts adding up quickly when you need a personal escort from the moment you go through passport control until leaving the country. Want to arrive in the country by train from Turkey? Your guide will need to meet you at the border and ride the train with you. Guess who pays for that train ticket.

You can defray the costs by going in a group tour, but I’m not a fan of group tours and try to avoid them when possible. Iran is a country with a super rich history. I know of 0 people who have gone there as tourists and had a bad time. I’m super excited to visit Iran. Luckily, I just received Brazilian citizenship. That makes this country less difficult to visit now.

Visiting USA to go to Disney

Honorable Mention: The United States of America

It wouldn’t be a list of which country is the most difficult to visit without mentioning the U.S. I was lucky enough to be born in a country whose passport lets me go tons of places easily. Unfortunately, many people have an extremely difficult time trying to visit the U.S. My wife’s family was rejected for visas to visit the U.S. more than once before being approved.

Other people are rejected every day or turned away at the border. Some people save money for their whole lives to visit Disney or NYC, etc. and then can’t. Many people around the world consider the U.S. the most difficult country to visit.

Final Thoughts

Which country is the most difficult to visit definitely depends on which passport you have. Some are much stronger than others in terms of ease of travel. Lack of international connections, non-functioning embassies, and political considerations affect things, as well. I’m very fortunate I’ve traveled so much.

I’ve had my share of travel horror stories. I’ve had some difficulties in trying to visit a few countries. Others will probably be difficult, but I expect to overcome them. Now that I have dual citizenship, I can visit countries that don’t give visas to people with U.S. passports or may offer me a lesser fee / no fee to visit when using a Brazilian passport.

Have you had a difficult time trying to visit a country? I hope this can be a thoughtful discussion and not devolve. I’d love to hear others’ experiences.

Note:

if you’re a visual person and wondering which countries you need or don’t need visas to visit with your passport, I recommend these sites:

Ryan S
Travel hacker in 2-player mode, intent on visiting every country in the world, and can say "hello" or "how much does this cost?" in a bunch of different languages.

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37 COMMENTS

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37 COMMENTS

  1. Great post!

    2 comments:
    As an American, I always get the extensive questioning when entering the U.K. though never denied, just a pain.

    I visited Turkmenistan last year. The tour company took care of everything for a visa on arrival. I was sent the LOI in advance and it was very simple. Going through the process at the airport however was time consuming especially when arriving at 02:30 hours.

    • Similar on the UK. Never been denied, just annoyed. They once called my friend’s house I’d be staying at. She wasn’t home, so they asked for her work and then called her there to see if she really knew me/was I staying there/are we dating (we weren’t)/why is a man staying at a woman’s house if you aren’t dating? Turkmenistan seems like tours are the easy way, but if trying to avoid a group tour…any recommendations?

      • As I understand the Turkmenistan rules, you MUST go through a tour group for extended visit. Otherwise, you can get very short term transit visa (2-3 days??) but that makes a very quick visit. I’ve read some folks enter Ashgabat and drive direct to Darvaza then exit into Uzbekistan. Again this is my understanding. I wanted to see more of Turkmenistan so didn’t consider anything but tour group. BTW Camping overnight at Darvaza was amazing.

        • Darvaza is really the only thing I know to visit. What else do you recommend that pushes the visit past 3 days?

          • Ashgabat – very closed city but seemed to opening a bit to tourists, over the top architecture, some nice mosques
            Merv – ancient city, depends on your level of interest
            Mary – next door to Merv, much more relaxed city, not too much to see but usually combined with Merv.
            Kunya-Urgench – Near border with Uzbekistan, another ancient site, very interesting mosques and minarets
            Turkmenbashy – did not visit but told it has some good sites
            Overall, worth it for me to spend a week.

  2. UK was always a time challenge because of the long lines, glad to hear that is a thing of the past…for now. Thanks, Brexit. 🙁

    Other than the lines, I’ve only had one difficult time entering the UK — and it was my own fault — because of how I answered the ‘why I was visiting’ question, I told the agent mainly for holiday travel, and taking the opportunity to do genealogy research for several people while here; a 15 minute discussion ensued to make sure I didn’t need a work visa. After they were satisfied that it was indeed unpaid/personal for family, not paid research, etc., I was allowed entry. Ah, the fun of wording an answer wrong, even though it is true and innocuous in the greater context.

    My experience that day, however, paled against that of the gal ahead of me, who was refusing to complete an entry card because she had Global Entry…ouch! Clearly, someone didn’t listen to the nice officer during her GE intake session.

    On the flip side of the coin, I find *returning* to the US more difficult/distressing than entering other countries. The officers always seem angry, like visiting other countries is cheating on America somehow…

    • With the Chagos Islands? Yes, super difficult to visit. At present, not a “country” but that could soon be changing. If it changes, the feasibility will also change, because it likely won’t be a British military space any longer (which is why you can’t go there).

  3. You can visit Hargeisa, Somali, visa on arrival. You can visit Kish Island, Iran, visa free. You can get a 14 day visa for Virunga Natl Park, DRC. You can also visit Erbil, Iraq, VOA.

    • I did the VOA for Erbil. Those obviously come down to your concepts of whether Kurdistan is part of Iraq and whether Somaliland is part of Somalia. To visit elsewhere in the DRC or to not shell out a lot of money for the gorilla treks, the visa through the embassy becomes a huge hassle. I know several people who went that route. I wanted to see elsewhere and thought I’d be saving money. Guess not.

    • It’s 100% my personal experiences, as the title suggests. However, this is exactly how Somalia works and how the other processes have worked for many people with the visas I discussed being difficult. Am I missing something?

  4. You’ve visited so many countries, which is really impressive! I’m surprised you haven’t visited Japan or Korea yet, though you have visited countries such as the two Congos and the Central African Republic. Impressive!

    • On solo trips, I go to countries my wife isn’t interested in. This summer, we’re doing Japan for the Olympics + South Korea. 🙂

      • Those are the two glaring omissions from your map, but looks like you are getting it filled soon enough. Btw, very impressive of your footprint.

  5. Where is your wife’s family from? Usually the visas are easy for us citizens family or spouse family unless they are from banned countries…

  6. My single criteria for determining whether a place is a country is simple: does the country issue a passport? For instance, I don’t believe San Marino does, so tough luck there.

        • Nope, it’s definitely a country by most judgments. Lacks an international airport and was using Italy’s money before the Euro, but it has treaties & a military & parliament, etc.

      • Wanna point out that while San Marino is a UN member, it is *not* an EU member. However, since it doesn’t have an international airport and is completely surrounded by Italy, it is de facto a Schengen country, which is what’s more important for purposes of traveling anyway.

  7. Taiwan is a country, albeit not formally recognized by many others and informally recognized by most. Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China just as America’s official name is the United States of America.

    Some countries are more difficult to reach than others. Andorra isn’t hard but one has to use an airport located in another country. South Sudan is not the easiest to fly to. Timor Leste is a bit expensive to reach.

    North Korea may be harder to reach now, particularly for Americans because of fewer transit links due to Covid-19 and the ban.

    Some places are hard to reach, such as the Norwegian sector of Antarctica.

    I don’t see any thrill in going to a place that is difficult to reach or difficult to get a visa.

    • North Korea has actually closed its borders right now–to everyone–because of Covid-19.

      South Sudan I used United miles and flew on Ethiopian. It was quite simple to fly there. Goes out of terminal 1 (old terminal) at ADD.

  8. Ridiculous. US citizens don’t even have to speak to anyone coming in to the UK – they go through the same machines as UK citizens use. It takes about 10 seconds.

    • I came into LHR on Christmas Day, 2019 and it was the usual (for me) straight through immigration with no questions. I came back on a bus through the Chunnel on Jan 9 and was asked a few questions which was surprising to me. It was brief but still unexpected.

  9. The UK? Yes, very much surprised. Perhaps you might want to give them a try again. As a Canadian visiting London last October, it took me 30 seconds (maybe 60 at best) to pass through their electronic passport gates at LHR, with no lineups at all. To be honest, it did freak me out a bit, being too easy to enter the UK.

    • I hope it has improved! I’m all for the age of machines.

      I’ve entered the UK about half a dozen times and each time there was an inquisition. Not just the regular questions either. I get asked “How do I know you’ll take this flight?”, “Why should I believe you?” and one time after explaining my holiday plans “That doesn’t sound a likely story”. It’s almost funny in hindsight but at the time it was humiliating and annoying. Which was I guess the purpose of it, to prod me.

      All in all the UK has been a consistently unpleasant experience (entry-wise! very pleasant in other respects). The US process is a lot of lining up and rules and officials patronisingly yelling at everyone, but (with the privilege of an Australian passport) I’ve found it to be fairly straightforward. Canada is in the same boat.

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