With a change in political mood in some countries, even visas that were previously easy to get are proving tough. Here are the five most difficult visas and what you’ll need to do to get them
Anti-American mural in Tehran (Dreamstime)
An Iranian visa has never been straightforward to get, but the process is now harder than ever. Before you start thinking about your visa application, you'll need to get an authorisation code. This is really a pre-approval of your visa by Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), but can take up to a month to get and must be applied for by an official Iranian travel agency in Tehran.
If you're from the UK, Canada or the US, you'll need to hire an MFA-approved guide for your trip and provide their details when you apply.
Regardless of your nationality, you'll have to state the embassy you're planning to apply for your visa at, which you won't be able to change. Once you have your authorisation code, Iran now requires all visa applicants to appear in person at an Iranian embassy to submit biometric data. Ladies are instructed to wear a headcover in their passport photo for this one. If they don't, your application will be rejected.
Pakistan Security Forces in front of Pakistan/India Border (Dreamstime)
The sheer amount of paperwork required for a Pakistani visa can be daunting. The embassy will want to see not only your application, passport and a couple of photos, but also a letter of invitation from a Pakistani travel agency/individual, their tourist license, a letter from your employer, bank statements, travel insurance... The list goes on and on.
Be warned: if you miss even one document off the list, your application will be rejected, meaning another trip to the visa application centre to try again.
Chinese soldiers in Tianamen Square (Dreamstime)
Chinese embassies are getting stricter and stricter when it comes to visa applications. You can only apply in your country of citizenship or permanent residence, and if it's the latter, you'll need to provide proof.
To apply, the Chinese embassy will require a long list of documents, including flights in and out of China, and a hotel booking confirmation for every day of your stay. If you're planning to stay for 30 days or less, they'll generally issue your visa without any problems. Any longer than that, or if you're visiting sensitive areas, like the whole of Western China currently, then you'll also need to provide a detailed day-by-day itinerary of your trip.
Also note that in many of their application centres, including the UK, applications can be submitted by appointment only. A good deal of advance planning is essential as sometimes the nearest appointment may be two weeks away.
Sultan Alp Arslan and Malik Shah statues in Turkmenistan (Dreamstime)
Turkmenistan remains fairly suspicious when it comes to tourism, the authorities keen to keep close track of foreigners entering the country. For that reason, all tourists must be booked on an organised tour if they want to visit Turkmenistan.
Once you've booked a tour (which must include accommodation and a guide), the company arranging the tour will be able to apply for your letter of invitation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan. Invitations take a minimum of 2-3 weeks to process. Only once the invitation is issued will you be able to apply for the visa itself via your nearest Turkmenistan embassy.
If you're planning to travel to Turkmenistan, it's wise to start the process at least a month and a half prior to your date of arrival. Turkmenistan is hosting the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games later this year, so allow a couple of extra weeks for processing of visas/invitations, as authorities may take a little longer than usual to process applications.
Statue of Liberty (Dreamstime)
Generally, UK passport holders don't need a visa and can instead apply for an ESTA (electronic travel authorisation). The ESTA is issued almost instantly, but can take up to 72 hours in some cases.
However, recent changes in US immigration laws mean that travellers who have visited certain Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen at any time on or after March 1, 2011 are no longer eligible to travel with an ESTA and must apply for a full tourist visa directly with the US Embassy. The same applies to applicants who are dual nationals of an ESTA eligible country, as well as Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan.
If you're applying for a visa with the embassy, you'll need to pay around $150 for the application and attend an interview in person. The interview must be booked in advance and often the nearest appointment is 2-3 weeks away, sometimes even longer than that. It's advisable that you start your application process at least 5-6 weeks prior to your date of travel to the US.
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Main image: Chinese guard (Dreamstime)