As a frequent traveler, the last thing I want hindering my travels is a lengthy visa application process. Or even the idea that I’m throwing money at bureaucracy (even if my own nation does the same to many other nationalities attempting to visit). At the same time, I’m also a big fan and seeker-outer of loopholes. If you’re lucky enough to be a citizen of the US or UK, you have the luxury of traveling to 172/173 countries visa-free. However, that still leaves over 20 that require visas, and some of those are definitely the most interesting to visit.
In the spirit of saving money, paper, sanity, and aggravation, below are the five surprising and unexpected countries with visa-free travel stipulations.
1) Russia. Never mind what everyone has told you about the difficulties of visiting Russia. There’s a loophole. Now, this loophole won’t help too much if you’re looking to ride the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia (highly recommended), but it’s great if you’re visiting Europe and see Russia as this daunting, giant nation you didn’t have the patience to get a visa for.
The loophole: Travel by ship. Cruise ship passengers receive a 72 hour No-Visa Entry stipulation when arriving. Granted, you have to be on an official tour, but there are many great tours with which to see St. Petersburg.
This is a fabulous option given the perceived hassle of getting a Russian visa normally. Cruises often depart from Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, and the Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Lines sail frequently.
2) Iran. Iran is a bit tricky in many regards, but is very much worth the effort. Unless you’re a citizen of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Egypt, Georgia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey, or Venezuela, you’d normally need a visa to enter.
This visa-free part of Iran won’t get you to the mainland, but if you’re yearning for a quick jaunt to Persia, Kish Island is the way to go. This island, off the western coast of Iran in the Persian Gulf is a free-trade zone and has many malls, hotels, beaches, and shopping venues. You can get to the island via Kish Air from Dubai/Abu Dhabi, as well as via Turkish Airlines, Emirates, or Qatar Airways.
3) Belarus. At the time of writing, literally the day before, Belarus opened its whole country up, visa-free for five days. Historically, Belarus had limited visa-free access as the last dictatorship in Europe, mostly for international hockey championships and land border access to national parks. Now, the five day visa-free allowance is good for entry via Minsk National Airport upon arrival (not at land borders, unfortunately). This is great news if you’re hankering to travel to one of the last remaining European nations untouched by too much tourism. More information: www.mfa.gov.by. This policy will enter into force on 12 February 2017.
4) China. This one takes a bit more planning, but can easily be done. In short, a 72 hour visa-free transit (and free range throughout the country!) can be obtained via the airports at Shanghai, Beijing, Pudong, and a growing list of others. However, loophole if you’re a citizen of Belarus or Monaco – you can have 144 hours visa-free. You must have proof (ticket) of onward travel to a third country (not the one you came from) that is confirmed to depart before the 72 hours are up. Absolutely doable, especially if you do a jaunt down Japan, ferry to Korea, fly from Seoul to Beijing and then back to Japan!
5) Azerbaijan. Also one of those countries in the “safe, but hard to access” category, US citizens can obtain a visa on arrival good for 30 days IF, and only if, they take a direct flight on Azerbaijan Airlines from New York City. If you’re worried about safety, this route hasn’t seen any issues. And, to be fair, the airline as a whole has only had a few accidents and one hijacking in the last 20 years. It’s all about loopholes.