The world's hardest countries to visit

Mexico: Having a second passport can increase your opportunities and visa-free travel options… except for a few hard to visit places

Dateline: Wroclaw, Poland

While many of the entrepreneurs who seek my help getting a second citizenship intend to keep their current citizenships, I have been seeing an increase in the number of people who wish to renounce US citizenship lately.

Two people I’ve been working with just finished the renunciation process, while two other dual US citizens – one from New Zealand and one from Croatia – wanted me to advise them on the process, and another gentleman wanted my help getting another passport in order to renounce.

Having a US passport is a privilege many people wish they had. While most European Union citizens, including those here in Poland, aren’t too impressed by the idea of American citizenship, many of the people I talked to in Serbia and Montenegro feel that their life would be better with US citizenship.

Of course, they haven’t had to live with the worldwide tax paying and reporting obligations that comes with such a strong passport, but nevertheless, most US citizens I speak to are very cautious about giving up a “Tier A” passport.

In general, having a second citizenship not only increases your business and investment opportunities and increases your freedom, but it also offers increased visa-free travel. However, if you plan to replace your current passport, you should be aware there may be a few places you will have trouble going.

For one thing, unless you are renouncing one European Union citizenship in favor of another, you will not have unfettered privileges to return to your home country. In the case of the United States, only US citizens can freely come and go, which means that renouncing US citizenship means forever giving up the ability to live, study, work, and retire in the Land of the Free without obtaining a visa (in which case such visits are time-limited) or getting a Green Card under whatever qualifications are required at that time.

For those of us who live a more nomadic life and are more agnostic toward living in our birth country, giving up a Tier A passport can still pose challenges. These are the same challenges that make the aforementioned Serbians believe that trading up from a (rapidly improving) Serbian passport would be worth any of the hassles we mention on this site.

For many of us, the issue is which countries would we no longer be able to visit if we gave up a Tier A passport? I describe what I consider the three tiers of second passports here:

After all, visa-free travel is almost seen as a birthright in many developed countries, especially the United States. When the European Parliament suggested that Europe rescind visa-free travel privileges for Americans because of a lack of reciprocity (Polish citizens, among others, can’t visit the United States without a visa), Americans flooded the comments section to tell Europe to screw themselves.

The truth is, even many of us who travel a lot have spent very little time thinking about obtaining visas in advance. I have been seeing just how hard it is to obtain some visas as I have dedicated myself to traveling without my US passport lately.

If you’re curious what it’s like to travel on a Tier B passport, you’ve come to the right place. Not a week goes by that I don’t find myself poring over the latest visa-free travel maps for citizens of countries ranging from the United Kingdom to Djibouti. I geek out on this stuff, and I’ve recognized a short list of countries that make it tough for all but developed world citizens to visit without a visa.

There are a number of countries which offer visa-free travel primarily to Tier A passport holders. These countries can be highly developed countries whose difficult visa policies wouldn’t surprise you, but there are also some developing countries that you might not expect to be so difficult when it comes to issuing tourist visas.

So if you have ever wondered, “which countries could I NOT visit without my US passport?” (replace US with UK, EU, Canada, Australia, etc. as necessary), here are the answers:

1. United States

Quelle surprise, right? Setting aside a few closed-off dictatorships, the United States is perhaps the world’s most difficult country to visit. Not only does it allow a mere forty countries’ citizens to visit without a visa, but everyone else has to queue up at a US embassy; there are no e-visa on online visa facilities, and you’ll need to plan to surrender your passport for as long as it takes for the embassy to issue you a visa.

As if that weren’t bad enough, citizens of the forty “good” countries that can visit visa-free still have to complete an online application called ESTA, which requires a $14 fee and is good for all visits within two years. Getting ESTA approval is no easier than getting an e-visa to Turkey or Cambodia, leading some to suggest that the only people who get true visa-free access to the United States are Canadians. Since the US introduced ESTA some time after 9/11, Australia and Canada have followed suit with similar programs.

In fact, visiting the United States without a visa is such a pain that I wrote an article on getting a second passport from a Visa Waiver Program country, just in case you don’t want the hassle of being interviewed by a consular officer in person the next time you want to gamble in Las Vegas. Without this Visa Waiver status or a valid visa, you can’t even transit through a US airport, which means that renouncing your US citizenship to become St. Kittsian could be challenging if you ever plan to actually fly to St. Kitts, since most flights connect through Miami.

2. Canada

Like its neighbor to the south, Canada has become more difficult about letting people in. Also like the United States, it is rather strict about any type of visa-free visitors, including transit passengers. You’ll need a Canadian visa to fly through the country on your way to somewhere else, which means that many Tier B citizens wishing to visit the Americas must transit through Mexico, Panama City, Bogota, or Sao Paolo rather than points further north.

Canada’s visa process can be started online, but you still need to mail stuff in or visa a consulate, which can be tricky. The process almost seems like an immigration application, with lots of questions about your family and who is accompanying you.

3. United Kingdom

Several of my European friends who hold Tier B citizenships have said that the United Kingdom is the most difficult country to obtain a visa for. In some ways, this makes sense, since the process must start online and there is no embassy to rely on for help. For as frustrating as the US visa process is, at least you get to go to an embassy and have someone handle your paperwork for you in person.

I see the most difficult countries to visit as being the major Anglophone countries: the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. There are three pairs of these countries right next to each in different pockets of the world, and the European pocket – the UK and Ireland – is probably the easiest to deal with.

This is partially because most economic citizenships offer visa-free travel to the UK and Ireland, but not to the US and Canada or Oceania. You can obtain second citizenship by investment in any of the Caribbean islands like Dominica or St. Lucia – or the more expensive passport programs in Malta or Cyprus – and get the same visa-free benefits you have as a US citizen.

4. Ireland

Ireland, like the United Kingdom, is one of two countries in the European Union that received an opt-out from the borderless Schengen Area. That’s why you must go through Irish immigration when you arrive on the island, even if you’re coming from another European Union country. That also means that Ireland is free to make its own visa policy, and like Britain it uses that opportunity to be much less open than the increasingly easy Schengen Area.

Ireland’s visa policy almost entirely mirrors that of Britain, and most Tier B citizens can not visit without a visa. I attempted to go through the Ireland visa process recently and gave up due to the sheer volume of paperwork needed, including two personal letters describing your every whim about visiting the Emerald Isle. I love Ireland, but I eventually decided to just suck it up and use my US passport to attend an upcoming mastermind I’m holding. The good news is that, if I obtain a Caribbean passport, I’ll have the same access to Ireland as Americans.

5. Mexico

You might not expect a country as open as Mexico to be closed off to tourists, but you would be wrong. Mexico’s visa policy offers 180 days of visa-free travel to citizens of the six Anglophone countries mentioned above, as well as European Union citizens, a few Asian nationalities like Israelis and Singaporeans, and most citizens of Panama and South America. Everyone else needs a visa, which can be difficult for some considering that Mexico doesn’t have an embassy in every country. In a few instances, you’ll need a visa to visit the country where the embassy can issue your visa.

Unlike the English-speaking countries above, however, there is a work-around: you could simply become a Mexican resident. There are two schemes: temporary resident or permanent resident. If you have enough cash on hand, the process is bureaucratic but straightforward. In fact, I’ve been helping a few people obtain Mexican residency for this very reason.

6. Thailand

Most of Southeast Asia is pretty open to visitors. Even Vietnam has been adding European countries to a visa-free travel list, and almost everyone else can obtain a visa online very easily. I’ve even used my Comoros passport – definitely a Tier C passport – to obtain e-visas, visa on arrival, and one sticker visa to almost every Southeast Asian country. 
Thailand is the biggest exception.

While the Malaysia to the south lets practically anyone in (unless you’re from the Balkans), Thailand’s visa policy roughly follows that of Mexico, but with the addition of allowing Russian citizens to visit. (Go to Phuket and this will become rather clear.) Like Mexico, Thailand has a residency program, but unlike Mexico where you simply need to prove you have cash, Thailand requires you to invest it in real estate, stocks, or a Thai bank account. There are several schemes, including the oft-abused “student visa” scheme, but the most straightforward and legit requires an investment of about $280,000 to get Thai residence.

Personally, I’d rather go where I’m treated best and stick to Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia that are far more interesting and less hostile to foreigners, but I realize many travelers would miss visa-free travel to Thailand, as well.

7. Japan

Japan is notoriously worried about foreigners coming and littering, so it only makes sense that their visa policy for tourism is rather strict. While neighboring South Korea is more flexible, Japan allows only 67 countries’ citizens to visit without a visa; those countries are almost entirely located in North America, Europe, and the rest of the developed world, although Tunisia is also on the list somehow, and Serbia recently negotiated visa-free access.

The good news is that, if you need a visa, Japan most likely has an embassy near where you live. In fact, they have embassies in just about every civilized country on earth.

8. Serbia

Depending on where you’re from, the entire Balkans might be off-limits to your Tier B or Tier C second passport. The break-up of Yugoslavia turned the region into six much smaller countries, two of which joined the European Union and four which have been left to fend for themselves. While the European Union can negotiate with countries more easily, there isn’t a lot of bureaucratic necessity to negotiate travel between Serbia and, say, El Salvador. As a result, many citizens who can visit the Schengen Area can not visit the Balkans countries.

The most difficult of all of these countries to visit is Serbia. All of the other countries – Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and the always independent Albania – allow you to enter visa-free if you have a valid Schengen visa. That means that I could get a Schengen visa in my Comoros passport and then use that to also enter Montenegro. The challenge here is that many Tier B passports – say, Georgia or Colombia – have no need to get a Schengen visa, although a Schengen residence permit also works.

Countries like Montenegro are opening up; an economic citizenship from St. Lucia, for example, will get you visa-free treatment there. Serbia remains the most difficult one, with the exception of their recent visa liberalization with the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It is possible to get second residency in Serbia by starting a business or buying real estate, as it is in Montenegro. I love the Balkans and would want to make sure I could continue visiting at least Serbia and Montenegro with ease.

9. South Africa

To be honest, South Africa is becoming difficult for developed world citizens to visit, too, so this may not be the best example here. South Africa recently stripped New Zealanders of the visa-free privileges because New Zealand no longer reciprocated the open door policy, and they have threatened to examine other countries who also don’t reciprocate. That means that United States, Canadian, and European citizens might lose the ability to easily visit South Africa, too.

However, if you have a Tier B or Tier C second passport, you can most likely kiss the idea of a visa-free visit goodbye. It is possible to obtain second residency in South Africa by proving business or pension income – similar to Latin America’s rentista programs – but I’m not convinced that’s the best way to plant your flags.

The Good News

On the plus side, there are plenty of regions where Tier B and Tier C passport holders can visit without a visa, including the Schengen Area, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Panama, and others. In general, the number of difficult countries to visit is declining. The other good news is that, outside of the big military powers, many countries are either relaxing visa policies or moving to a far easier e-visa system; I expect that trend to continue to grow at a slow pace.

Having a top-grade Tier A passport certainly means a world of travel opportunities and no visa worries. That said, I do think that some fears of having to get a visa are overblown. If removing a toxic citizenship from your life means visiting an embassy every few years, it may still be worth the sacrifice even despite these most difficult countries to visit.

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Andrew Henderson

Andrew Henderson

Andrew has been internationalizing since 2008, and has learned what works and what doesn't work when it comes to reducing taxes, increasing personal freedom, and creating wealth. Click here to work with him personally.
Andrew Henderson

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