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The hardest visas for US citizens: Tips and strategies for success
9 min read
Updated on May 14, 2024

Securing a visa for international travel can sometimes prove to be a challenging process, especially for US citizens.

These difficulties can stem from strict requirements, lengthy procedures, political tensions, or a combination of factors. Here are some countries known for having stringent visa processes for US citizens, along with tips for navigating the visa application process in challenging countries.

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Our world traveler, Michael Zervos, has helped us determine in real-time which visas have been the hardest to obtain as we continually assist him on his record-breaking journey around the world.

For more details on Michaels's travels and how we are helping him, check out our Project Kosmos hub page.

Michael lists some of the most challenging visas to get as a U.S. citizen.


  • Challenges: A Tourist Visa and Tourist Invitation letter are required, a detailed itinerary is needed, an extensive application form with extra questions for US citizens, the last 10 years of travel history in detail, and a personal interview may be necessary.

Michael stated early in his journey, “The reason why we put Russia as the first country is that it is harder to get into as an American, even as a Greek.” Michael holds both US and Greek passports.

As he mentioned in his first interview Michael was presented with an unexpected situation and an embassy appointment that he wasn't previously advised of, which made the process even more costly and complicated than usual.

  • Tips: Apply through a reputable travel agency or official Government website that specializes in Russian visas to help navigate the process. Ensure your paperwork, including the Invitation Letter from a Russian host or organization, is meticulous.

As an American citizen, you may require a second check or short interview upon arrival in Russia.

At iVisa, we don't currently offer the Russian Tourist Visa, but we guided Michael through the process from application to approval. To apply for yours, we recommend checking out the Embassy of The Russian Federation in the USA.

For extra first-hand Russian travel advice from Michael, why not check out our 10 top tips for traveling to Russia.

North Korea

  • Challenges: Travel is strictly limited and must be arranged through a sanctioned tour company. Independent travel is not allowed, and you can only cross from China. If you hold an American passport or are from South Korea, you are not eligible for a North Korean visa and cannot travel to, in, or through North Korea.

The only way to travel there as an American is to have a special governmental passport or obtain permission from the U.S. Federal government. So, it's a good job Michael holds both Greek and American citizenship!

  • Tips: Book through an experienced tour operator that deals with North Korea travel. They will manage the visa process on your behalf.

Michael has partnered with us and Untamed Borders to get the best advice on visa applications and approval throughout his world trip.

Be warned, once you do get in, it's far from a standard tourist experience; you're not allowed to communicate with the locals, speak ill of the North Korean leader, you can't walk around on your own, and you can't leave the hotel after the tour guide has finished for the day.

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Saudi Arabia

  • Challenges: Tourist visas were historically hard to obtain, but recent changes have made it easier, though some restrictions may still apply.

Such as women traveling solo must have a sponsor responsible for meeting them upon arrival, and couples traveling together are expected to be married.

Although challenging, maybe not quite as much as the other countries. We recently opened our doors to the Saudi Arabia Umrah and Tourist eVisa for US citizens. US citizens are the only nation we are currently able to help with the official Umrah visa, so things are looking up.

However, keep in mind that as a tourist, you must still follow specific rules. For example, even with a tourist visa, if you are a non-Muslim, you cannot enter Mecca or Medina.

  • Tips: Use the new eVisa system for tourists, but ensure you meet all cultural and legal requirements to avoid issues upon entry or during your stay.

Top tip: Read our requirements and application guide for the Saudi Arabia Visa for US citizens for in-depth advice and information.


  • Challenges: Restrictions on travel purposes, U.S. embargo issues, and financial transactions can be complicated.

If you're an American citizen, you can't enter Cuba for tourist reasons. Instead, you must qualify under one of the other 11 authorized categories of travel, including family visits, official government business, journalism, professional research, educational activities, religious activities, public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic competitions, and humanitarian projects.

If granted entry into the country, you'll be issued a pink Tourist Card, which differs from the Green Tourist Card provided to other nationalities.

  • Tips: Travel under one of the 12 authorized categories, such as educational activities or humanitarian projects. Use a specialized travel agency to ensure compliance with U.S. and Cuban regulations.

Regulations surrounding travel to Cuba can change, so it's crucial to check the latest updates from the U.S. Department of State or consult with travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba for the most current information and guidance.

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  • Challenges: No diplomatic relations with the U.S., complex application process, 5 year detailed travel history needed, and a high level of scrutiny.

As U.S. citizens are not eligible for an Iran VOA(Visa On Arrival), they must apply for the Iran eVisa.

The eVisa application is a sort of pre-approval as you will have to pay the government fee for your visa at the airport’s banking terminals when you arrive, in Euros only. Finally, you will receive your permit to enter the country.

  • Tips: Apply through a tour company or document advisor who is experienced with Iranian visas. Be prepared for a lengthy process and ensure your itinerary does not raise concerns.

You need to have a verification code before you apply for a visa. This authorization code is issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iran. We will apply on your behalf as part of the application process if you choose to apply with us.

Furthermore, if you're from the US, you're not allowed to explore as a tourist independently; instead, you must have a government-approved tour guide accompanying you at all times. You must pay for your tour before you apply for your visa and show your receipt on application.


  • Challenges: Lengthy application process, they keep your passport for a while, it is expensive, invitation letter is required, and proof of polio vaccination.

It's hard because of the invitation letter, it's based on the relationships of the people who are getting them.

Michael, having very recently visited Nigeria, listed a few other personal challenges he went through to get his Nigeria Visa.

  • “They can be super imprecise about when they decide to give you the visa, it doesn't come in the time frame it's supposed to, and the experience is very much determined by the whim of the person at the office at the time,” he says.

  • Michael also says that you have to know the right person because there are a lot of scammers out there claiming to help you get the letter and taking your money.

  • Because of all the challenges of obtaining his Nigeria Tourist Visa Michael opted for a Business VOA. He says, “They send it to you 10 days before your trip, no sooner. I got mine in 7 days.”

  • Tips: Start the application process well in advance of your travel dates. Ensure you have all required documents, including the invitation from a trustworthy Nigerian host, and consult with Nigerian immigration for any clarifications.

Top tip Michael used Ucomeafrik Tours to help him organize his invitation letter, and the whole experience in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. The company was recommended to him by Every Passport Stamp, a super useful Facebook group where travelers from all over the world share valuable tips and advice.

We don't currently offer the Nigeria Tourist Visa for the reasons stated above, but we can help advise you and obtain the Business eVisa on Arrival. If you need advice on obtaining the Nigeria Tourist Visa as a U.S. citizen we recommend contacting the Embassy of Nigeria in Washington DC.


  • Challenges: As the Venezuelan Embassy in the U.S. is closed and Venezuela doesn't have an operating U.S. Embassy it's a little more complicated to obtain a visa. You can apply for your visa through the embassy in Mexico City, or Panama. You may even try your luck at the Venezuelan embassy in Colombia. Of course this means you need to be in any of these 3 countries while you apply for your Venezuela visa, as you may be required to go in person, and the wait time is undetermined.

  • Tip: Check out this Venezuela Visa Support Facebook group for advice from people who have been through the process.

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Sources say that it's very difficult to contact the Eritrean embassy, and there's very little information available online. It's advised to contact someone in Eritrea to contact the embassy in Washington DC on your behalf, preferably a licensed Eritrean tour operator. Then all that's left is the unpredictable wait time which is reported to be around a month of back and forth, sending documents via email, and finally, payment should be made via demand draft or banker's check to the embassy in Asmara.

The Eritrea visa process differs per nationality and is often changing, so it's best to contact the embassy for up to date information.

Mali: Unexpected challenges

Finally, Mali, it wasn't expected to be a difficult one, but when applying for the Mali Visa, Michael came across a few unexpected roadblocks that we feel are important to mention.

“The process involves collecting a money order, passport, a yellow fever vaccination card, hotel and flight info and taking them to the Mali embassy in NYC,” says Michael.

“When we took it to the NYC embassy in person, they made up some rule when we were there that I had to know somebody in Mali. This threw a wrench into the works. I was supposed to get the visa in 2-3 hours but they wanted a letter of invitation, so I ended up contacting an acquaintance that lived in Bamako.

“You usually have to pay for a tour and pay 100s of USD to be able to get the letter, so they were stunned that I got mine within 3 days.

The main problem is that there are no clear instructions or requirements, and they often ask for documents you didn't know about beforehand.”

  • Tips: Michael advises having a solid and trustworthy contact in Mali who can help with the invitation letter or book your trip through a secure tour agency.

And of course, it's always advised to contact the US embassy in Mali for the latest visa and travel advice.

Need more help? Contact us

While holding US citizenship may appear advantageous in many visa application scenarios, it can actually complicate matters in certain cases. That's precisely why our assistance is invaluable. We're here to navigate you through the visa process and offer advice whenever and wherever necessary.

You can contact us via chat, or WhatsApp anytime.

If this blog makes you a little anxious about obtaining your visa, then why not head over to our alternative article on the easiest visas for US citizens.

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