Good news for globe-trotting Americans: most countries around the world are free or very cheap to get in to. But, as this map shows, some countries do charge through the nose for a visa. And it's not the ones you would expect.
First, let's get a persistent myth out of the way, the one that says Americans don't travel overseas. That so-called fact is proven by an oft-cited statistic: only 10% of U.S. citizens – or thereabouts – have passports. Wrong! According to the State Department, the actual figure is closer to 46%. And that corresponds to more than 131 million American passport holders.
And that passport is all you need to gain entry in most countries. The official at the border will stamp one of the pages at the back of your booklet and off you go, to explore other climes and cultures. But quite a few nations are not satisfied with passports alone. They require a visa – and to obtain that visa, you must pay. Sometimes you can purchase it on arrival, often you must get it at the embassy or consulate of your destination country. So, who wants how much?
Entry into Europe is completely free for U.S. citizens, from Monaco to Moldova, from Liechtenstein to Lithuania, from the UK to Ukraine. And just about anywhere nearby or in between. With a few exceptions.
- A visa for Belarus costs $65. For that price, you get to visit the landlocked Russian satellite state often branded “the last dictatorship in Europe”. It is highly advised to say only nice things about its president Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
- Talking about countries with long-lasting leaders, the Russia of Putin (in power since 2000, alternately as president and prime minister) currently charges an entry fee of $160. That sounds like a lot, but Russia is the biggest country in the world.
- Azerbaijan, that Maine-sized ex-Soviet republic on the extreme southeastern edge of Europe, wants exactly as much. In comparison, that seems a bit steep.
- Lest you think that it's just post-communist near-autocracies that want a visa fee, check out the Czech Republic. Want to see the splendor of Prague? That'll cost ya $98 to get in. Not cheap, but still not as much as a day pass to Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom. And all the Czech castles are real. Plus, this is if you want to stay longer than 90 days. Shorter visits are still free. Eat that, Mickey!
Free entry is a lot rarer in Asia, but there is still plenty of choice.
- Americans can get in for free in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, Japan and South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. There is also free entry for countries many not even have heard of – so why not go see Brunei or Kyrgyzstan? The diving is supposed to be good in the Maldives.
- In the Middle East, you don't pay a cent to get into Lebanon, Israel or the United Arab Emirates, where out of the empty sand dunes the global metropolis of Dubai has arisen almost overnight. Get your Israeli stamp on a separate leaf if you plan to visit any other places in the Middle East: they don't take kindly to people who visit a state they see as mercilessly oppressing Palestine.
- All the other Asian countries require visas. The cheapest ones, color-coded light green, are Nepal and Tajikistan (both $25); Cambodia, Jordan, Pakistan, Qatar, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste (all $30); and Kuwait and Laos (both $35).
- In the slightly more expensive yellow bracket, we find Bangladesh, India, Iraq and Oman ($50). Communist North Korea wants 70 of your capitalist dollars, and Bahrain ($77), Uzbekistan ($80) and Vietnam ($85) think you will afford a bit more for the privilege of visiting them.
- In the orange band, things turn political – or so it would seem. Iran wants $100 before you get a visa. Even more like a shakedown is the $140 you need to get a Chinese single-entry visa... if you're an American. The same type of visa can be had for as little as $30, if you're not an American citizen. The Afghans ($160) want even more, but we doubt if it's that fee which is keeping away all those tourists.
- Bhutan is a small kingdom jammed between India and China, trying hard to take from the modern world only what it deems culturally appropriate. Perhaps that is why the $200 visa seems a bit dissuasive. Same for the other pink-coded Asian country: Burma, a.k.a. Myanmar, tentatively emerging from decades of isolationist military dictatorship. By all means go see its fly-in-amber culture, but be prepared to fork out $250 for a visa.
- The most expensive country in the world, visa-wise, charges more than double. For a visa to get into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you will have to part with no less than 533 of your hard-earned dollars. Well, at least you won't be spending that amount of money on the Riyadh club and bar scene.
Africa is a mixed bag, visa-price-wise. Some of the continent's most fabled and popular holiday destinations can be visited free of charge. Island paradises such as the Seychelles and Mauritius. Fabulous South Africa and its neighbors Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia. Northern African dream destinations Morocco and Tunisia. Senegal in West Africa.
- Egypt would like $20 before you get a live look at the pyramids. Togo and Zimbabwe want $30, while the island paradises of the Comoros ($32) and Cabo Verde ($43), also in the green category, are not as free as the others.
- Many African countries charge an entry fee between $50 and $100, i.e. the yellow band. These include Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia (it'll be a while before its fee turns into a moneyspinner), Tanzania, Angola, Djibouti, Sao Tome and Principé, Malawi, Benin, Ghana, Mali and Madagascar – to be precise. Yes, buying the movie Madagascar is a lot cheaper, but the island itself is much more awe-inspiring.
- The most popular color in Africa is orange ($100-$200), with Burundi, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda all charging an entry fee equal to one Ben Franklin. Gabon charges you two Bens, as does the neighboring Republic of the Congo – not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which wants $175 for a visa. Both Congos are the only two countries in the world with their capitals right across from each other. Land in Kinshasa, take off from Brazzaville, and you'll have spent $375 on visa fees alone.
- That is more than you would spend touching down in Lagos, although Nigeria is the African country with the highest visa fee: $253.
So what about Oceania?
- There is a whole list of island paradises that you can fly to visa-free, from Fiji and Kiribati to Micronesia and Palau; from Samoa to the Solomon Islands, and from the Marshall Islands to Vanuatu; and of course Tonga and Tuvalu. Let's throw in another, slightly larger island paradise for free: New Zealand.
- But cross the Tasman Sea, and be prepared to fork out $20 to enter Australia. That's half as much as Papua New Guinea wants, and a fifth of Nauru's entry fee.
For Americans, it is a bit cheaper to stay closer to home, even if you discount the air fare. You have to travel pretty far on the American continent to find a country that wants money for your visit. It's a pretty short list, even across the entire hemisphere:
- Suriname, the former Dutch colony marooned on the northern shore of South America, wants $35 for your visit.
- Paraguay charges at least $100 before you enter the country
- and its neighbor Brazil takes the cake by taking $160 for your entry visa.
Some of the visa fees come across as deliberately dissuasive – Saudi Arabia nor Bhutan seem keen on becoming major tourist destinations. In general, the richer countries are visa-free, while the poorer ones charge higher fees, no doubt not in an attempt to keep out visitors, but to fill the state coffers. That should not keep away the determined visitor: all things considered, none of the fees is prohibitive, especially considering the fact that higher visa fees are likely to be offset by the lower cost of living in most of those destinations.
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Sources: Table 1.1