Today, we’re venturing off the beaten path to explore 10 countries Americans can’t travel to, or move to, easily.
At Digital Émigré, we love to celebrate the freedom and ease of travel.
But geopolitics sometimes has other plans.
Buckle up, because this journey is all about the places that are notoriously tough for US passport holders to access.
10 Countries Americans Can’t Travel To Easily
#1. North Korea
In pole position, we have North Korea, or as it’s officially known, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Prior to 2017, a few brave souls could visit North Korea through guided tours from China, via direct flights from Beijing, or over the Yalu River by train from the border city of Dandong.
North Korea’s isolationist stance, the result of a political doctrine called Juche, along with ongoing tensions with the US, largely contributed to the travel restrictions.
But now, North Korea is top of the list for countries Americans can’t travel to easily.
The current travel ban started with the heartbreaking and cautionary tale of Otto Warmbier, a young American who experienced the severe consequences of this nation’s rigid political system firsthand.
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, visited North Korea as part of a guided tour in late 2015. In early 2016, he was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport while attempting to depart.
The North Korean government accused Warmbier of committing a “hostile act” against the state by allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. After a one-hour trial, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
His case underscores the extreme risks and potential for arbitrary detention that American travelers face when visiting North Korea.
Sadly, Warmbier’s situation turned even more tragic.
In June 2017, after 17 months in captivity, North Korea released him, but he returned to the US in a coma, with severe brain damage.
He passed away six days later. Warmbier’s case resulted in increased tensions between the US and North Korea and led to a US travel ban to North Korea for American citizens, as of July 2017.
Now, Americans wishing to travel to North Korea must obtain a Special Validation Passport from the US Department of State, only issued under very specific circumstances, such as for journalists covering the region or for humanitarian aid workers.
Did you know North Korea created its own time zone, Pyongyang Time, to break from “imperialism”? It’s 30 minutes behind South Korea and Japan.
Next up is Iran, a country brimming with historical sites and warm hospitality, but fraught with diplomatic hurdles for Americans.
The 1979 Iranian revolution led to strained relationships between the two nations, with the US imposing heavy sanctions on Iran over nuclear disputes.
Traveling there is not impossible, but it does require a guided tour and a lengthy visa process.
Diving into the intricacies of traveling to Iran as an American, the journey begins even before setting foot in the country. The process to get there is anything but straightforward.
Independent travel in Iran is not allowed for US citizens. All travel must be part of an organized tour led by a government-approved guide.
Your tour company will provide a detailed itinerary for your stay in Iran. This itinerary is not only a requirement for your visa application, but it must also be strictly followed, leaving little room for spontaneous exploration.
Guided tours of Iran can range from general cultural experiences to more specific interests such as culinary or adventure tours.
Moving on to the serene Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the difficulty in traveling here is not politically motivated but rather a consequence of their unique tourism policy.
To protect their environment and culture, Bhutan only permits a limited number of tourists each year, with Americans required to pay a daily fee of $200-$250.
This policy, called “High Value, Low Impact,” is an innovative effort to promote sustainable tourism.
This fee might seem steep at first glance, but it’s important to understand what’s included.
The fee covers accommodation in 3-star hotels, all meals, a licensed tour guide, transportation within Bhutan, camping equipment for trekkers, and a sustainable tourism royalty that goes towards free education, healthcare, and infrastructure development in Bhutan.
Essentially, it’s an all-inclusive package, contributing directly to the country’s welfare.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that measures its success through Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. But it only ranks in 97th place on the latest World Happiness Report.
Read more about the world’s happiest countries (and how to move there).
Although relations between the US and Cuba have thawed slightly over the years, travel restrictions persist.
A relic of the Cold War, the US embargo against Cuba, known as ‘el bloqueo’ locally, prevents American tourists from visiting purely for tourism.
But Americans still can visit under one of the 12 authorized categories.
These include family visits, journalistic activity, professional research, religious activities, public performances or competitions, and the most commonly used, “Support for the Cuban People.”
This last category requires that travelers maintain a full-time schedule of activities that support Cubans and promote Cuban civil society.
Activities can include staying at a casa particular (private residence), eating at paladares (private restaurants), shopping at private markets, or engaging in discussions with locals about their lives and society.
Once you have determined your travel category, you’ll need to obtain a Cuban Tourist Card or visa. Most travelers can get the tourist card through their airline when they book a flight to Cuba.
The card is pink for those flying directly from the US, and green for those flying from other countries.
Some airlines include the cost of the card in the ticket price, while others require a separate fee.
On the Horn of Africa, we find Eritrea, often dubbed the ‘North Korea of Africa’ due to its reclusive policies and autocratic governance.
The US and Eritrea have a strained relationship due to various issues, including Eritrea’s human rights record and detention of US embassy local employees.
Obtaining a tourist visa for Eritrea is notoriously difficult, with approval often arbitrary.
Even with all required documents, there’s no guarantee of approval. It’s also worth noting that the processing time can be quite lengthy, often taking several months.
And even with a visa, your freedom to explore Eritrea is limited.
To travel outside the capital, Asmara, foreign visitors need to obtain a travel permit from the Eritrean government, which can be a lengthy and uncertain process.
Often, these permits are only granted for certain tourist-friendly areas, and traveling beyond these areas can result in fines or other penalties.
While the process to visit Eritrea is undeniably challenging, those who have ventured there often speak of its unique appeal, from the art-deco architecture of Asmara to the stunning landscapes of the Dahlak Archipelago.
#6. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia used to be a tough nut to crack for American tourists, due to its restrictive visa policies.
The country, governed under strict Islamic law, had traditionally limited visas to business travelers, Hajj pilgrims, and family of residents.
But in 2019, Saudi launched a new tourist visa to attract foreign visitors as part of its Vision 2030 program, aimed at diversifying its economy beyond oil.
In a significant break from its past restrictive policies, Saudi Arabia now allows Americans to apply for a tourist visa online. The application process for the e-Visa is relatively straightforward and quick.
Applicants need to fill out an online form, submit a passport-sized photo, and pay a fee. The visa, valid for one year, permits multiple entries with each stay up to 90 days.
Despite this, women travelers still face restrictions. Women under the age of 25 must be accompanied by a family member during their visit. But women over 25 can travel to Saudi Arabia alone.
While the government has eased the previously strict dress code, women are still expected to dress modestly.
Saudi Arabia is home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites, ranging from the historic city of Diriyah to the rock art of the Hail Region.
While exploring, remember that some sites may be off-limits to non-Muslims, and always follow local guidance on respectful behavior.
Turkmenistan, the Central Asian nation known for its eccentric former president and the flaming “Door to Hell” crater, is next on our list.
This land of vast deserts, ancient ruins, and striking modern architecture, is undoubtedly one of the most challenging countries for Americans to visit due to its strict visa policies and the government’s general wariness of foreign visitors.
The US’s diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan are limited, with human rights and democracy issues being major sticking points.
Its stringent visa process is a legacy of its Soviet past and present-day autocratic rule.
Unlike many countries that offer an online application process, Turkmenistan requires you to apply through an embassy or consulate. In the US, this is the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Washington D.C.
The requirement for a letter of invitation often proves the most challenging part of the visa process. You’ll need to arrange your tour through a Turkmen travel agency, which will then apply for the letter of invitation on your behalf.
The process can take several weeks and approval isn’t guaranteed. Be prepared – the embassy could deny your application without any given reason.
Independent travel in Turkmenistan is almost non-existent. Most tourists are required to book a guided tour for the duration of their stay.
The only exception to this rule is a transit visa, which allows you to travel through the country for up to five days, but even this requires a detailed itinerary and is often rejected.
Upon your arrival in Turkmenistan, you’ll need to register with the State Migration Service within three days. This is typically handled by your tour operator. Failure to register can result in fines and complications when trying to leave the country.
Despite these challenges, Turkmenistan offers unique attractions for the intrepid traveler.
From the surreal Karakum desert featuring the fiery Darvaza Gas Crater (the “Door to Hell”), to the white marble-clad buildings of its capital, Ashgabat, and the ancient ruins of Merv and Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan is a destination that’s as rewarding as it is challenging to visit.
The former president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, named a month after his own book, Ruhnama, and even built a monument to it in the capital, Ashgabat.
War-torn Syria is a high-risk area that the US Department of State advises against traveling to due to terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict.
The Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, has severely strained Syria-US relations. Although the war has significantly decreased tourism, it’s still technically possible (but highly discouraged) to obtain a visa through a lengthy process.
Obtaining a visa for Syria as an American is a complicated and lengthy process. Applications must be made through the Syrian Embassy in your country of residence.
In the case of the US, this is a challenge, since the Syrian Embassy in Washington D.C. suspended operations in 2014. So you’ll have to apply through a third country that has a functioning Syrian embassy.
It’s crucial to know that any travel to Syria could have significant future travel implications. For instance, having a Syrian stamp in your passport could result in being denied entry to other countries.
It’s worth noting that while Syria boasts a wealth of historical and cultural sites, including the ancient cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra, the ongoing conflict has led to extensive damage and destruction.
The dire situation has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, and the safety and security conditions are extremely volatile. Therefore, travel to Syria is currently strongly discouraged for safety reasons.
Like Syria, Libya is another country where ongoing conflict makes it a no-go zone for American tourists.
The US Department of State strongly warns against all travel to Libya due to crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.
The 2011 Libyan civil war and the murder of the US ambassador during the Benghazi attack have greatly strained Libya-US relations.
Obtaining a tourist visa for Libya as an American citizen can be a complex process. Tourist visas aren’t being issued at present due to the ongoing political instability. But, as of 2023, you can still travel to Libya on a business visa.
In normal circumstances, a business visa application would require a valid passport, completed application forms, the application fee, passport-sized photos, and an official letter of invitation from a Libyan-based company.
If you choose to travel to Libya despite the risks, it’s strongly advised to register your travel plans with the U.S. Embassy through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
Libya is home to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the desert town of Ghadames, and the ruins of Leptis Magna, one of the most prominent cities of the Roman Empire.
Rounding out our list is Venezuela, a South American nation famed for its striking natural beauty ranging from the Andes Mountains to the Caribbean coastline.
Venezuela has unfortunately been in the throes of a political and economic crisis for the past several years. grappling with economic collapse and political instability.
With the ongoing crisis, the US Department of State advises against all travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, kidnapping, and arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens.
As an American citizen, you will need a visa to enter Venezuela. But getting hold of one can be a complex process due to the absence of a Venezuelan embassy or consulates in the U.S., following the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2019.
Visa applications must be made through a Venezuelan embassy in a third country and require a valid passport, completed application form, passport-sized photos, proof of travel itinerary, proof of accommodation, and the appropriate fee.
While Venezuela boasts attractions like Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, and Los Roques Archipelago, a national park known for its pristine beaches and coral reefs, the current political and economic instability make it a dangerous destination for travelers.
These countries, while challenging for Americans to visit (and almost impossible to move to), remind us that travel isn’t just about sightseeing but also about understanding the complexities of the world.
It’s a peek into the nuances of international relations, a testament to the resilience of cultures amid adversity, and a tribute to human curiosity.
Always remember to respect local customs, comply with laws, and keep abreast of the latest travel advisories from the US Department of State when planning your travels.