Be it due to their remoteness, stringent entry and hard travel conditions, these are our top picks for the most difficult countries in the world to visit.
After decades of bloody civil war and political unrest, Angola is finally beginning to recover and mend its many wounds. A country rich in natural resources, it remains a difficult place to access, with little travel infrastructure to speak of, but it hides great natural beauty and a proud, welcoming and stoic population.
Why go: the surprising and prosperous capital of Luanda (the most expensive city in the world), Portuguese influences with an African twist, fantastic national parks and wildlife
How to get in: Angola has strict visa regulations. All foreign nationals, except citizens of Namibia, are required to get a visa before traveling, the requirements for which include, among other things, an international vaccination certificate.
Bhutan is a mysterious Himalayan kingdom, steeped in Buddhist tradition, yet with its sights set firmly on the future. Famous for measuring its wealth in Gross National Happiness rather than GDP, at least 60% of Bhutan’s territory must, by law, remain forested, making it the world’s only carbon sink, absorbing more greenhouses gases than it emits.
Why go: breathtaking Himalayan landscapes, majestic monasteries and architecture, fascinating Buddhist cultural tradition, “The Last Shangri La”
How to get in: All travelers, excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian citizens, require a visa and must book their trip through a Bhutanese travel operator. Visitors must also pay a fee of $250 per day, which seems a bit excessive, but includes all travel expenses (accommodation, transportation, food and even a guide). Beyond that, travelers have quite a bit of freedom: they are able to design their own itineraries and are not restricted to large tour groups.
The remote island nation lost somewhere in the Central Pacific is one of the world’s least visited countries – no wonder, since getting here is tough both logistically and (for many) bureaucratically.
Why go: Paradise beaches, stunning scenery, fishing, diving, water sports, abundant fresh seafood
How to get in: Citizens of 68 countries (including all of the EU) are allowed to enter Kiribati visa-free. Others must seek out one of Kiribati’s very few foreign embassies (the country’s only diplomatic presence in Europe is limited to one person in the tiny Welsh village of Llanddewi Rhydderch, nearly as secluded as Kiribati itself).
Long shut off to foreign visitors due to its knotty visa requirements, Belarus, the country notoriously dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has recently introduced simplified entry to those who wish to stay no longer than 5 days. Those who enter and depart through the Minsk National Airport do not require a visa to stay in the country for up to 5 full days.
Why go: Authentic culture, Soviet nostalgia, low prices, pristine nature, medieval castles, off-the-beaten-path feel in the heart of Europe
How to get in: If you wish to stay longer than the visa-free period of 5 days (and are NOT a national of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine), you will need to apply for a long-term visa in advance – requirements for these remain stringent.
6. Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is many things: the birthplace of Islam, a shopper’s paradise and one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit, home to sparkling cities, endless resort beaches and vast desert expanses, ruled by strict Islamic law. It simply cannot be compared to anywhere else on earth.
Why go: the modern metropolis of Riyadh, the mixture of old and new in cities like Jeddah, golden beaches and world-class diving, historic, cultural and natural attractions galore, not to mention the most sacred places in the Islamic world (accessible only to Muslims).
How to get in: All foreign visitors, with the exception of citizens of some neighboring countries, must have an advance visa (except those visiting through airport for fewer than 18 hours, though in those cases some restrictions still apply). Tourist visas were suspended in 2010, so you’ll probably need a business or student visa, or a Hajj (pilgrimage) visa for Muslims, to get in. Additionally, if you do manage to secure a visa, its period of validity will be displayed in lunar months, so have fun figuring that out. Be aware that Sharia is strictly enforced in Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps less difficult to visit than places like Saudi Arabia, Iran is a country of rare natural beauty that remains to-date relatively unexplored. Reasons range from the negative publicity Iran receives in the Western media to the often tricky process of obtaining a visa.
Why go: Persian cuisine, hospitable locals, stunning nature, historic sights
How to get in: Visa applications take notoriously long to be processed, so make sure to start preparations long before traveling (tourist visas on arrival are known to have been denied to foreign nationals). Entry restrictions may apply to American, Canadian and British citizens. Entry is denied to Israeli citizens and travelers whose passports contain any indication of connection/travel to the state of Israel.
Decades of Saparmurat Niyazov’s rule left Turkmenistan with streets, cities, months of the year and even meteorites named after himself (‘Turkmenbashi’ – “leader of all Turkmen”, the country’s changeless leader up until 2006).
Why go: See what remains of Turkmenbashi’s crazy personality cult, visit the “Gates of Hell” natural gas craters and Karakum Desert, explore rich cultural and spiritual heritage
How to get in: A foreign visitor’s best bet is either hiring a guide from a local tour company (this will also make it much easier to get the required letter of invitation) or applying for a 5-day transit visa (only works for travel on land).
3. North Korea
A notoriously secretive and shut-off society, tourism to North Korea is ever so slightly on the rise. You can’t expect to travel independently while you’re there, and your guides will be sure only to show you what you’re meant to see, with most interactions carefully orchestrated, but you may still get insight into one of the world’s most isolated and unsettling places.
Why go: There simply is no other place in the world like North Korea. Experience firsthand the deranged personality cult around the Kim family, and with your presence help expose the population to just a taste of the outside world.
How to get in: North Korea can only can only be accessed with an organized “tour” from China. That being said, it is not that difficult to secure a visa once your tour and guides have been booked (there are several companies that take care of the whole process), as long as you’re not a journalist.
The world’s smallest independent republic (and the least visited country) is difficult to access not only due to its remoteness, but also its strict visa regulations. If you manage to go, however, you can walk around the entire country’s 19km circumference (a significant portion of which is taken up by the airport runway).
Why go: Pacific island living, interesting Karst landscapes and coral reefs, experiencing traditional Nauru culture while you still can. Plus, bragging rights: it’s hard to be more “off the beaten path” than this.
How to get in: There is only one flight per week to Nauru from Brisbane, Australia (as well as a few other flights from nearby islands). All foreign visitors must get a visa in advance, except citizens of some other Pacific nations, as well as citizens of Russia and Israel, who can get a free visa upon arrival.
The single-party state of Eritrea comes in dead last on our list and the World Press Freedom Index, beating even North Korea to the title of world’s least democratic in terms of freedom of information. Border controls are typically very stringent, which does not apply solely to journalists.
Why go: Cultural melting pot, vibrant capital of Asmara, friendly locals, shopping (low prices on gold and silver jewelry in particular)
How to get in: Nationals of all countries, except Kenya and Uganda, require an entry visa. There is no guarantee of being issued a visa, and some applicants may only succeed after multiple attempts at obtaining one. A local tour operator’s involvement may somewhat simplify the process.