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Five Countries You Can Only Visit Through Government Sanctioned Tours

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 Steve Gempeler and Peter Gulas of Allied Passport & Visa are back with their expert knowledge of all things visa and passports. Today, they’re tackling the complicated topic of traveling to countries that only allow Americans through government sanctioned tours. Read on for everything you need to know about traveling to these countries and obtaining the appropriate visa.

There are currently five countries that allow American visitors entry only if traveling on government sanctioned tours. These countries are Cuba, North Korea, Bhutan, Tibet (not officially a country but we’ll include for the sake of this story), Turkmenistan, and Iran.

If after reading the above list of countries you’re thinking, “I wouldn’t visit any of those places even if I were paid to do so,” stop reading immediately. However, for those of you with even the slightest interest in immigration procedures and countries that Americans don’t often visit, this article will intrigue you immensely.

Note: The below focuses solely on tourist travel for USA citizens. Non-USA nationals may face similar stipulations for several of these countries.

passport and travel

Cuba

In recent years, the US Government has offered more legal ways to enter Cuba. Today, we will be focusing on traveling as a tourist to Cuba (or as the government calls it “people to people” travel).

In a phone interview with Tom Popper, President at Insight Cuba, Tom was able to provide some “insight” on the process of US Citizens legally entering Cuba.

Insight Cuba, or any other US tour operator, for that matter, offering such Cuban tours, must obtain a “People to People” license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is sanctioned by the US Treasury. This license is valid for only two years, but can be continued if the operator qualifies and remains in good standing.

For tours to qualify for P2P, three to four activities must be arranged by the operator for each full travel day. For travelers to be considered legal visitors to Cuba, they must participate in all activities (unless fallen ill or other circumstances arise). Simply put, you cannot book a tour, ditch the tour group and head straight to the beach or do your own thing.

The actual paperwork of the traveler to enter Cuba is quite easy. Once you’ve booked your licensed tour, you simply send a scanned copy of your passport information page to the operator. There is no true visa to acquire for US citizens. Since the tour operator is already licensed, you being accompanied by them is all you need to be a legal traveler. With your tour, you will also need to purchase a charter flight package. If you were to look on Expedia, Orbitz, etc., you’d see no such offerings for flights to Cuba from the USA. The tour operator has contracted with private carriers that are required to provide the US Treasury any information they request, i.e. passenger manifests.

Tourist Card – Any US national entering Cuba will be required to purchase a Tourist Card. In the case of a US charter flight, this Tourist Card will be included with your flight package. If flying from outside the US, these Tourist Cards are sold by your airline before boarding your flight. The cost is approximately $35.

North Korea

US Citizens will most likely enter North Korea through China for two reasons. One, the Pyongyang airport has limited international destinations and two; Beijing is likely where you’ll obtain your North Korean visa. So first, Americans will need to acquire a multiple entry China visa (with Allied Passport ideally!) since a visa-free transit is not applicable in this situation, according to the State Department.

North Korea does not have representation in the United States (meaning there’s no embassy in Washington, DC) so tour operators offering North Korean tours, such as popular Koryo Tours, arrange your visa usually a minimum of four weeks before entry. Once you’ve booked a tour, to start the visa processing you’ll need to fill out a questionnaire, provide a scan of your passport and also email the operator a passport-like photo. From that point on, the tour operator will take care of the grunt work (including your airfare from Beijing to Pyongyang) with the North Korean Foreign Ministry.

So your tour is booked, and you’ve made it to Beijing and are boarding your flight to Pyongyang. Now what? Here’s the fun part. When boarding you will hand over your passport to your tour operator and won’t see it again for the duration of your North Korea trip! Best of all, there is no visa or documents you are shown to verify you are eligible to enter North Korea. Also, when you arrive back to Beijing and your passport is returned, expect not to see a single entry or exit stamp or fancy visa label inside.

On your tour you’ll be escorted closely. There are no options to roam about solo. The only time you’ll feel truly independent is inside your hotel. Also, make note when departing the country your digital cameras will be inspected by border patrol agents and don’t be surprised if some of those photos get deleted.

Bhutan

According to the US State Department Bhutan Travel webpage:

All visas are approved in the capital, Thimphu, and are only issued to tourists who have booked travel with a local licensed tour operator, either directly or through a foreign travel agent. Applications for tourist visas are submitted by the local tour operator (See the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators website for further information). All visitors, including those on official U.S. government business, must obtain visa clearance from Thimphu before travelling to Bhutan. Visa clearance takes at least 10 days to process and airplane tickets to Bhutan cannot be purchased without visa clearance. At your point of entry into Bhutan, immigration authorities will stamp a visa into your passport upon payment of $40 U.S. You will also need to provide two passport photos. Tourist visas are usually granted for the scheduled travel period.

What is exclusively unique about travel to Bhutan is this country sets a minimum daily tariff for its visitors. This tariff is an all inclusive rate which includes your accommodations, transportation, meals, local travel guides, essentially paying for everything outside of non-essentials (e.g. mementos).

Bhutan’s largest airport serves limited international destinations including very select cities in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Singapore giving visitor’s an excuse to visit other exotic countries on the same trip!

Tibet

In order to visit Tibet you’ll need to obtain a China visa first. Secondly, booking an organized tour is mandatory. Your tour operator, after receiving a copy of the traveler’s passport information page and China visa, will apply through the Tibet Tourism Bureau, for your Tibet Travel Permit. When taking a train or flight into Tibet you’ll be required to show this permit during check-in.

China Visa

The ordinary Tibet Travel Permit is only valid for travel within Lhasa City. Any travel outside the city, you’ll be required to apply for additional permits. For Lhasa tours, you’ll be assigned a tour guide. “Tours” can be as small as one person. Even though you are required to be on a tour, unlike some other countries on this list there are no activity requirements and if desired, you can explore the city unsupervised.

Turkmenistan

In order to visit Turkmenistan as a tourist you’ll need to book an organized tour. Once booked, your government authorized tour provider will request a copy of the traveler’s passport information page and will apply for a tourist authorization through the Turkmenistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Generally, this authorization is never valid for more than three weeks and is date specific. Meaning, your stay in-country is limited to the exact dates the visa is written for and the visa cannot be extended in country. Once you’ve finally obtained that authorization, you will then need to apply for the visa itself either directly through the embassy or using a visa service in Washington, DC. Visa processing takes two weeks in Washington.

Your tour guide is required to accompany you throughout your travels with the exception of sightseeing in the capital, Ashgabat. If you plan on visiting only the capital, a transit visa is potentially a better option.

A transit visa is usually valid for only five days and you’ll need to submit your application directly to the embassy in Washington DC. Transit visas are not available on arrival.

Iran

Your visa to Iran, surprisingly, is no more difficult to obtain than any other country we’ve discussed.

Here are a couple passport questions to ask yourself before booking your mandatory tour and applying for your Iranian visa:

  • Does your passport have any evidence of Israeli travel? If yes, Allied can assist in either renewing your passport or applying for a 2nd passport.
  • Does your passport expire soon? Your passport must be valid for 6 months beyond your exit from Iran.

Once you’ve okayed these questions your next step is to book an endorsed tour and begin the visa application process.

All nationalities are required to have an entry visa to Iran. For Americans, the visa validity will only be granted for the actual length of stay of your tour. If you decide to spend a few extra days in Iran before or after your formal tour, this can be arranged by the tour company and added to the length of the visa.

The most grueling aspect of obtaining a visa to Iran is getting a visa reference number which comes from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fortunately, your tour operator will process the paperwork for this. You’ll need to fill out a Reference Number Application (supplied by the operator) and a scanned copy of your passport.

Once your visa authorization number is granted, it is only valid for 30 days; therefore, you’ll need to apply for your visa at your most local Iranian consulate as soon as possible. Although, Washington, DC doesn’t have an official embassy, Iran does have an “Interest Section” located within an office building leased by the Government of Pakistan.

Once your application has been submitted to the consulate (either by you personally or by a third party service) it usually takes five to seven business days to process.

Here are the consulate submission requirements:

  • Three completed Iran visa applications (write the authorization number on the top of each page)
  • Three passport type photos
  • Physical passport with 6 months validity beyond trip completion and one blank visa page
  • One copy of flight itinerary – proof of entry and exit from Iran
  • Copy of your tour voucher
  • Payment in the form of a money order

Once you have arrived in Iran (for Americans) you’ll be assigned a mandatory escort at the airport who will transport you to your hotel. In Tehran you are able to explore independently, but anywhere outside the city you’ll be required to stay with the tour group.

For more information on obtaining international travel visas and receiving a special $5 TPG discount on your order please visit Allied Passport & Visa. Do you have any questions? Ask away in the comments section below.

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