My Big Fat American Passport

Oh, if our passports could talk! A quick look at the numbers and some stories and lessons behind my newly-fattened American passport.

This is it. After this, no more.” — An American embassy employee in Berlin hands back my passport with a third – and undoubtedly final – set of extra pages.

My Big Fat American Passport
My Big Fat American Passport, 96-Pages Thick

What do you think of when flip through your passport? Countries visited? Number of visas and passport stamps? Possibilities?

When I shared my glee of getting a third extra set of pages in my passport on Facebook, a friend asked how many countries it had been through. I really had no idea. So I pulled out my passport and began paging through, counting, and recounting. My hands ran over pages thick with unremovable sticker visas, dug-in staples and stamps in red, blue, green and black ink.

A handheld travel chronicle in mixed media art.

American Travelers with Passports
Photo credit goes to our friend, Ben Herman.

My thoughts moved to the processes we went through to get all those visas, to gain passage — not so much the bureaucracy (that’s not terribly interesting in itself), but instead the people and the experiences and what they taught me about relationships with, stereotypes of and assumptions about the world.

This is my passport, in numbers and a handful of lessons.

My Passport in Numbers

  • Pages: 96 pages (originally 24 pages, but I’ve had three extra sets of pages added)
  • Stamps: 109
  • Countries traveled through: 45 (see list of countries on left sidebar for full list)
  • Visas: 23
  • Total Costs of Visas: $1,616 (check out this visa cost chart for all details)

My Passport in Lessons

1. China: Who’s Rich?

Wow, $120!? That’s a lot.”

When I expressed sticker shock at the visa window of the Chinese Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan about the high cost of a Chinese visa for Americans, the clerk responded: “No problem for you. All Americans are rich!

As if.

The premise was absurd then. It’s patently absurd now. But dated stereotypes will always die hard.

2. Bolivia: Wait, Wait. We Are the Good Guys, Aren’t We?

On our fourth and final trip to the Bolivian embassy in Lima, Peru, I examined more closely one of the notices on the wall that outlined visa fees. When it came to visitors and visas, Bolivia seemed to divide the world into three distinct segments: good guys who get free passage, OK guys who have to pay, and the dregs, the bad guys who have to pay a bunch and cough up lots of paperwork.

The first two lists were long, encompassing virtually the entire world.

Who were the “bad guys” in the third category?

Oh, a short list, including places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, North Korea, and you guessed it – the United States.

3. Bangladesh: Don’t Judge a Country by Its Bureaucrats

We applied for Bangladesh visas at the Bangladeshi Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The worn-out bureaucrat behind the counter wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. He rejected our application (we weren’t residents of Malaysia) and wouldn’t allow a single question. He shooed us out of the way like we were flies.

Nice way to treat a couple of wide-eyed tourists who’d like to visit your country and give it some much-needed exposure.

Dejected, we looked at each other and wondered, “Do we really want to go to Bangladesh?”

We stepped outside the embassy, a little lost. Sensing that we needed some help finding our way, a man approached us and walked with us all the way to the metro station. He boarded the train with us and even made sure we got off at the right stop. He was a migrant worker, of limited English and financial means, but he didn’t want anything from us.

He simply wanted to help. He was Bangladeshi.

Young Bangladeshi Man with Finger Guns - Bagerhat, Bangladesh
This isn’t the Bangladeshi man who helped us in Kuala Lumpur. We just like his smile.

The world over, government officials and politicians often act one way while ordinary people act another. Thank heavens for that.

Note: Given the horror stories we’ve heard from people who have applied for visas to the United States, I’d ask non-Americans to keep this in mind during their next visit to an American Embassy. Ordinary Americans like us are really much friendlier than our country’s bureaucratic visa process might indicate.

4. Turkmenistan: Beyond Reputation

I was nervous about applying for a visa to Turkmenistan. My impression of the country was of one that was on the edge, where people mysteriously died in jails. So when we set off to apply for the visa at the Turkmen embassy in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, my stomach was in knots.

We climbed a long hill to a large white building in the middle of nowhere, the edge of town. We sat and we waited. Sure, we had our Letters of Invitation, our beautifully pressed dollar bills and all the other paperwork we needed, but my gut told me something would go wrong. Maybe we filled out all those forms incorrectly? What if they find out about my former employer? I almost expected to be carried away in shackles.

However, instead of facing a wall of angry bureaucrats waiting to call the secret police on us, we were welcomed with smiles and a surprising flexibility when it came to the details. We were even offered tea while we waited.

This would be the first of many pleasant surprises when it came to Turkmenistan.

Audrey and Vendor with Colorful Scarves - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan, always full of surprises.

5. Republic of Georgia: First Impressions Matter

It was the ungodly hour of 3 AM. After the arrival of our flight from Riga, Latvia, we stumbled in haze of post-flight exhaustion towards the Georgian immigration/passport control desk in Tbilisi airport.

Have you been here before?” the Georgian official asked.

No, this is our first visit,” we replied.

The official – at 3AM no less — flashed us a smile, perhaps the biggest we might ever see at an immigration counter, stamped our passports with verve and exclaimed, “Welcome to Georgia!!

Someone had clearly been trained. We felt a lift. We were going to like this place.

Friendliness and hospitality: the themes that carried the day in Georgia, one of our favorite destinations to date.

—-

Next up: A few quick tips on how to keep your passport in good condition so it lives to see a 96-page lifetime.

What stories or lessons would your passport tell if it could talk?

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Comments

  1. says

    Loved this article! Our family is still in the slow process of filling the first set of pages on our passports. However, we love looking back at the stamps and the visas, running our fingers over the different lettering, and remembering all of the adventures that we have shared.

  2. Agne says

    Oh, my passport hasn’t been touched much by stamps since most of my trips were in Europe, and you don’t get any stamps or visa’s (if your country belongs to EU) – quite boring, actually.

    But my passport is more experienced now. I live in Thailand, and it was quite stressful to get all my stamps. First, when I went to Thai Consulate in Vilnius, Lithuania, I was applying for tourist visa with a fake flight ticket (I needed round trip ticket, but in reality I had only one way ticket, since I was going there for work). So 5 days of waiting for my tourist visa were pretty stressful – I was so worried! Anyway, when I went to get my passport back, all was ok, and I had my first stamp.

    When I had to go to Malaysia to get my new visa for work permit, I made a mistake by looking at the wrong stamp (that’s how unexperienced I was with stamps!), and I overstayed 16 days in Thailand, which gave me almost 270 US dollar fine… I have stamps which remind me of it.

    Then I got a nice Non Immigrant -B visa in Thai consulate in Penang, Malaysia.

    After 3 months, I got another one – 1 year visa (which is just a simple stamp in red ink), so now I don’t need to do any visa runs for 12 months.

    But with the new stamp, there is also a funny note clipped to my page, which says:

    “The ALIEN permitted to stay longer in kingdom must notify yout place of residence to the immigration office every 90 days”

    So now I am an alien in Thailand :)

    Thank you for your article! Your passport must be quite heavy, but I am sure it brings a smile to your faces when you look at it :)

    Miss you, guys!

  3. says

    Despite 8 trips since the new passport, only have stamps for the U.S. now – everything else has been within Europe. Pretty boring, the old one was much more interesting.

  4. says

    Love the stories behind some of your stamps – I always like to look back at mine when I’m waiting in a long immigration line somewhere :) I need to apply for a new passport when I get back to Sydney (Australia doesn’t give extra pages) because mine is full 4 years before it expires.

    Do you guys get lots of questions when you enter the USA and the UK? I’m always given a hard time for both countries and they always comment on how many stamps I have – even Australian immigration frowns at it. Solo traveller with lots of stamps – seems to ring an alarm bell somewhere.

  5. says

    Congrats on the passport novel! :) What a great list of countries and stories that you have. Enjoyed reading about your unique experiences but loved the story about Bangladesh the most.

    “government officials and politicians often act one way while ordinary people act another.”

    AMEN!!! A couple of days ago I wrote about the immigration and multiculturalism issues around the world and question whether these were more serious issues than terrorism. The government and the media are some of the worst in the world as they sell stereotypes and images and could care less about dealing with people. I encouraged people by sharing ways travel can help us overcome our differences and heal the wounds many countries are suffering because of pathetic attempts to deal with immigration and multiculturalism.

    The story of the man who helped you in a Bangladesh is a great example of how to bridge the cultural gap – connect with people and help others!

  6. says

    I’m guessing tip number one is: don’t send it through the wash. Though the covers are a bit more supple now. Will look forward to more passport stories. Why is it your last set of pages? Is it about to expire? I won’t need more pages (again) before mine expires either, and actually most of my passport looks like this:

    argentina-chile
    chile-argentina
    argentina-chile
    chile-argentina

    All it takes is one visit to Patagonia to fill up with that. Love the pic of you in Turkmenistan, Audrey!

  7. says

    This was a very enjoyable read! It sounds like you’ve had some fabulous experiences around the world. I know that I (like lots of Americans) love getting passport and visa stamps too :)

  8. says

    Mine would say that I got on the plane for Asia the most broken I could ever feel as a human but came back with colourful stamps and a true sense of invincibility! I’m now preparing for my trip to Africa – hooray for adding to my passport story =)
    LOVE your passport novel; incredible!

  9. says

    The best story is one where my passport was not present… While inside the EU, I travel exclusively with my Lithuanian passport. We often went to Latvia (From Vilnius) for ski races, and sometime during the winter of 2007 (when kids under the age of 18 were required to travel with a notarized document stating permission from their parents).
    It had happened many times before that I forgot my passport, since it felt more like driving to Wisconsin than to another country. This time, I packed my bags the night before and was sure to grab my passport. Or so I thought.
    Three hours from Vilnius, we had nearly arrived at the Latvian border. I was organizing the documents for myself and the children while the other coach drove, when I looked down and noticed that someone had hand-written something in my passport, which I thought was odd. I picked it up and realized I had taken my Sodras (social security) book instead of my passport – they are identical. The only other ID I had was a US driver’s license.
    Fortunately, all the kids’ documents stated they were allow to travel with both me, and the other coach (some kids were only aloud to travel with me) and so instead of going back to get my passport, or having one of the parents bring it, the other coach pulled over to the side of the road, and told me, with out getting out of the van, get under the back seat. There were 6 kids in that van, and a LOT of skis and other stuff. We were loaded down for sure. I hid under my three girls’ feet, and tried not to cough as we crossed the border. The border guard had considered asking us to get out of the van and open the back, but the other coach pretty much said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a children’s ski team!”
    We got in, and out of Latvia that way!

    Some other time I’ll tell you about getting a Lithuanian language test when crossing through a sliver of Croatia with only a Lithuanian passport and a US driver’s license!

  10. K Mohammed says

    Travelling with a Pakistani passport is a curse. I was not born in this country and neither did my parents but somehow I got it. Long story. Some other day. But all I want to say is that Pakistani passports are least welcome around the world due to the country’s reputation for corruption and terrorism. Ordinary law-abiding people like me suffer because of all this crap…

    I hope you can raise our plight and the plight of other people who belong to so-called “failed states”

  11. says

    Glad to oblige with blog post prompts!
    Wish Europe still gave country-to-country stamps… what is it about seeing those stamps that makes us feel so good? Is it a fulfillment of the inner-list maker in us? Left-over girl scout badge-earning mentality? Or–much better–the sheer pleasure of knowing you hold in your hands a mnemonic prompt for hundreds of travel stories?
    Looking forward to more of yours (as always!)

  12. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    I meant to ask you the other day about your US passports. These days, you can get a fat one (96 pages) for no extra fee. There is also a passport card but it applies only to visits to Canada and Mexico. The passport (as well as the passport card)has an electronic chip . If you are one of those paranoid types, here is your chance to wax paranoid on the role of Govt. and interference in our personal matters.

    But I digress. I guess you guys must have HUGE passports..and the visas must be equally impressive!

  13. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    And the State Department is one department that seems to work. I submitted an application for a renewal on June 6th and got my new passport, passport card and old passport back in the mail by June 30th. Now that’s efficiency! They even sent me email saying they had processed my passport.

  14. says

    Wow, that’s a passport, congrats! Instead of adding more pages I’m renewing mine. Just finished filling in the visa pages. For the thirty dollar difference, I’ll start over and keep the one I have that still have valid visas. Happy travels!

  15. says

    Wow that seems like a lot of money for visas! Then again, I’m probably approaching that on various direct and indirect funds for getting my Kyrgyz visas sorted out, including trips to Almaty and back (any “special fees” at the border) and finally breaking down and paying a lawyer to get my 1-year work visa sorted out. I’m always worried a border guard will look at my half-dozen Kyrgyz visas and wonder, why is this girl so disorganized?
    I worked at a US embassy for a while and luckily they don’t charge for extra pages, so I stuffed mine while I had the chance! I do get some strange looks sometimes. Does anybody ever question if it’s a fake?

  16. Lisa says

    What a great story! I remember the official in Singapore wishing me happy birthday because she saw that it was going to be my birthday in two days time. That was a really friendly introduction to the country.

  17. says

    Love this post and the stories that go with all your experiences! What a great way to recap your travels thus far. And I thought my passport was hard to lug around with just one extra set of pages!

  18. says

    I found you through Lori at Fake Food Free. I love this post! You wouldn’t know much by looking at my passport alone, but if you compared mine to my young daughter’s, you’d find that most countries grant young children longer stays than their parents. Both Ireland and France did this for her. We had cartes de sejour in France, and while my husband’s and mine expired two years ago, my five-year-old daughter can still live there legally. :-)

  19. Thomas says

    I can relate. I am at 72 pages already and my passport does not expire until 2019. However, this filling of pages is nothing compared to the marshrutka drivers that make two trips daily between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Four stamps per day – they need new passports every four months.

  20. says

    Love it. Our kids’ passports expire next year and we’re already talking about what stamps we could possibly add between now and then. Fun discussions!

    Blogging this post for my Saturday Snippets this week … great post – can’t wait for the next in the passport series!

  21. says

    Loved this! My passport’s cover is completely worn out now – it’s due for renewal in 2013, so it’s been around a bit haha.

    Us Brits don’t get all the stamps that non-Europeans get, as when we visit somewhere within the EU, there’s no visa, and no entry or exit stamp needed. My passport looks a little bare due to this. Boo. (still, much preferable to visa hassles though!)

  22. Ori Eizenberg says

    Hi!
    This is such an inspiring article; Really awesome!
    I only have one question, how come you didn’t visit Israel??
    It’s literally in the back yard of Jordan (which I’m sure you know) and it’s such a beautiful place (Yes, I’m a little biased). I really feel you would have had a great time there.

  23. says

    Thanks so much for all the comments and for sharing your own passport stories. At some point (hopefully soon!!) we will have a better comment system so I can reply to each of you individually. Until that time, please bear with me and find all the responses together below.

    @Kathy: Glad to hear that your family is making good progress in filling the passport stamps in your current passports! Look forward to hearing where your next adventures take you. The memories and emotions that passport stamps and visas can evoke is pretty strong.

    @Nellie: Our Bolivia visa stories amuses quite a few folks :) When we boarded the bus in Puno, Peru to cross the border into Bolivia, the driver asked if there were any Americans on board. We were the only ones who raised our hands; the driver looked disappointed that any hands went up. When we assured him that we already had our visas, he perked up again. But, was rather annoying to have Europeans and other nationalities rub in the fact that they didn’t need an expensive $135 visa. We only ran into a handful of other Americans in Bolivia and I’m sure the visa process and price scared many people away. Kind of sad.

    @Agne: My favorite alien :) Thanks so much for sharing your visa and passport stories – I had heard a couple of them before, but hadn’t heard the end of your Thai visa ordeal. You’ve definitely had a lot of crazy experience since you arrived in Thailand. Hope you remember to notify the immigration office every 90 days…don’t want any more Alien fines!

    @Gary: I decided to get a new passport before we started this trip, so I still have until the end of 2016. Wonder if it will last that long…

    @Jack: Although the free movement within the Shengen area is really nice, it does mean that your passport doesn’t really document European travels like it used to. Like you, the last few times we’ve entered Europe there was no passport stamp.

    @Matt: After a passport gets filled up, you can either get extra pages (if you’re American) or apply for a new passport. The Swiss immigration officer at the Zurich airport was the one who informed me that I only had four pages left and that my passport would become invalid.

    @Megan: It’s interesting you ask this. When we return to the United States, I get anxious before going through passport control since we have lots of stamps from “the stains” and other not-so-friendly to US government countries. I take off the cover (which says Czech Republic) and try to put on my best smiling face (but not too smily as to raise the crazy lady alarm). Fortunately (and hope I don’t jinx myself here), we’ve never had any problems. Usually we get, “Wow, lots of travels. Welcome home!” Maybe traveling as a couple does help with this.

    We haven’t visited the UK for a long while, so not sure how that would go. I know in previous visits when we lived in Prague, they’ve asked a lot of questions.

    @Jeremy: We highlighted Bangladesh in the example of “don’t judge a country by its bureaucrats” but could have used so many different examples for this. One of the things that has amazed us throughout the world – and especially in countries not on friendly terms with ours – is the ability of regular people to separate the actions of a government from the actions of regular people. It’s really heartening – this is something that travel allows you to experience and hopefully share at home.

    Another great example of travel breaking down differences happened this past weekend for us. We hosted an Iranian couple through CouchSurfing. Sure, our governments are not on friendly terms. But we enjoyed spending time together as people – sharing food, music, conversation and more. And, we both learned that what we see of the other country on media is definitely not the full story.

    @Eileen: Um, passport through wash is definitely on the DON’T DO THIS list for passport care. Unless, of course, there is a stamp you’re conveniently trying to get rid of…

    Although I thought 3 sets of extra pages was the max, I just found out from Chris Guillebeau that he has 4 sets of extra pages. Turns out there’s no fixed rule. Just need to have a passport in good condition (i.e, keep away from washing machines) and find a friendly consul (e.g., Sierra Leone where they don’t have much to do at the Embassy).

    The pic from Turkmenistan makes me smile as well. I bought my headscarf from this woman and then showed my ignorance since I had no idea how to tie it properly and get it to stay on. She found that really amusing and took care of me, complete with giving extra bobby pins and such.

    @Michael: Yes, we’ve been really fortunate with all the places we’ve been able to visit on this trip. Looking through a passport is a great reminder.

    @Toni: Now that is an awesome passport story!! Congratulations!!

    And, good luck preparing for your trip to Africa. You’ve got many more exciting stories and memories to add to your passport.

    @Jenn: Whether your passport is present or not, land border stories are always great. I’ve never had to try to smuggle myself through a border before. Hope to avoid that…but if I do I’ll remember your trick.

    A Lithuanian language test in Croatia…now I’m curious.

    @Mohammed: I’m sorry to hear about your situation. Yes, traveling with a Pakistani passport is extremely difficult these days – it’s probably one of the toughest passports for getting visas. I completely agree that ordinary law-abiding people – the vast majority of people in Pakistan – suffer because of the actions of a few and politics. No easy fixes for this, but more and more examples of “ordinary people” in the media as opposed to extreme situations is one way to make a start.

    @Margaret: Bet you didn’t realize that your question would prompt all this – thank you!

    I think there are some people who do love collecting the stamps for the sake of increasing numbers – this is something quantitative and easy to share. For me the stamp or visa is a memory prompt – I see the country, date, place it was issued and I’m transported back to that Embassy or border crossing. Like you, I kind of wish Europe still gave stamps.

    @Sutapa: At the Embassy in Berlin, you could request a big passport with 48 pages, but didn’t realize that getting a 96 page passport from the start was even possible. Will need to look into that for when I need to renew.

    Another reason why I didn’t want to get a new passport is that my old one is from the pre-chip days. Although I’m not paranoid, I do like the fact that there is a little less data associated with my current passport.

    @Sue: For some people, getting a new passport works best. Helps prevent losing all the travel memories if you lose your passport. For me, I had several long-term and expensive visas that I didn’t want to lose. One would require transferring to a new passport at considerable expense and bureaucratic hassle. So, I was SO relieved when I heard I didn’t have to go through that ordeal.

    @Scott: Whether your passport has stamps or not, there’s a great feeling of possibility and opportunity when flipping through a passport since you can think of all the places you can go.

    @Jason: Yes, it is rather thick. Dan’s is the same size :)

    @Kirstin: If you take a look at this visa cost chart, you’ll see a lot of the visa expense came from the Caucasus and Central Asia :) I’m sure this doesn’t surprise you given your experience in the area :)

    One of the experiences I didn’t add here was trying to get our Kyrgyz visa extended in Karakol. The official confirmed we could take care of everything there, but then decided to take a bender for a few days in Bishkek on an “official trip” where none of his co-workers could locate him. Fortunately, he returned on the last day possible and extended our visa for a “fee” that he insisted we pay in cash (instead of go to bank) but wouldn’t give us a receipt. Not a good feeling, but we were desperate to not get deported.

    In the last year, extra passport pages have gone from free to $82. Good thing you stuffed your passport when you had the chance! So far, no one has questioned the validity of the passport.

    @Lisa: How nice! It’s the little things like that which can make or break a first impression to a country.

    @John: There are so many countries in the world that we haven’t visited yet! We had planned to visit Costa Rica, but by the time we got to Nicaragua it was the rainy season and hot and sticky. We decided to return and visit Costa Rica during better weather so that we’d actually enjoy outdoor activities there.

    @Stephanie: It is exciting, isn’t it? You start to imagine all the places you can go to fill up those pages. Good luck!!

    @Lori: Glad you enjoyed this! Let’s just say that wearing my moneybelt with my fat passport in it is not the most flattering look :) But I’m happy to do it for the safety of the passport and the ease of having everything in one place. PS – thanks for sending Mindy our way!

    @Mindy: Thanks for stopping by! That’s really fascinating that countries grant children longer visa stays than adults. Had no idea.

    @Thomas: I did find out that it is possible to get 4 sets of extra pages, so maybe you can keep your passport going a little longer.

    New passports every four months – yikes! Now that would be a royal pain. We took that mashrutka from Tbilisi to Yerevan – that’s a long ways to go twice a day. I also imagine the drivers from Almaty to Bishkek are in a similar situation.

    @Naomi: Ooh, that is a fun discussion. What are the top picks?

    And, thanks in advance for including us in your Saturday Snippets!

    @Tom: Yes, be careful what you wish for – not having to deal with tons of visa applications is a blessing (and helps the wallet, too). Even as an American, I find that often I’m not stamped into Europe – kind of odd as you would think there should be some physical proof on when we entered Schengen.

    @Jade: Safe travels filling your second passport!

    @Ori: Thank you – glad you enjoyed this! We would like to travel to Israel, especially as we have met so many Israelis on our travels who have invited us to visit them.

    When we visited Jordan, we were guests of the Jordan Tourism Board and already had plans to visit Bangladesh so we weren’t able to extend our time in the region. Next time…

  24. says

    I am a Singaporean and naturally I hold a Singapore Passport. One good thing about our country is that we do not need any visas to all the countries in Europe except for Belarus (only God knows why), all countries in Asia even China (except for Burma), most countries in South America, most countries in Africa, USA and Canada. Holding a Singapore Passport can be a bit boring actually since we only get stamps but I really thank God that we don’t need to queue up at embassies just to get Visas.

  25. says

    @Shaifullah: Consider yourself very fortunate to not need a visa to so many countries in the world! Didn’t realize that Singapore passports were welcomed in so many places – that’s really great.

  26. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Audrey, actually I don’t remember how many pages you can get right away – I recently got one but I don’t travel that much. I think 96 is the number but I could be wrong. But the key fact is: you don’t need to pay more to get the fatter passport.

  27. says

    @Sutapa: It’s the same principle when you’re applying for extra pages – the cost is the same whether you ask for 1 set (24 pages) or 2 sets (48 pages). I definitely appreciate the State Department’s approach to this – helps everyone involved. Not every government agency is like this though…

  28. says

    Love all the passport stories!

    Most recently, coming back from Israel to Denver via New York and the immigration official said “You should stay here in New York for the 4th of July…just tell your boss you got stuck in Israel.” (I probably could have said that and my boss would never have known the difference.)

    A couple years ago I spent just 3 days in Taiwan simply because I could get free hotel rooms. When I left, the official said, “Why did you only stay for three days? Next time you must stay longer, Taiwan is beautiful!”

    It’s always nice when someone wants you to stay – whether it’s here in the US or halfway across the world.

  29. says

    Love this post! It reminds me of my RTW trip and how we never knew what to expect from the customs officials when entering a new country. I actually skipped Bolivia because of their steep visa fee, which seems to be reserved exclusively for Americans (not sure how many citizens of the other countries you mentioned actually travel there). Visa fees make such a difference!

  30. says

    @Jenni: I love it when immigration officers start conversations like that, either on your way in or out of a country. We’ve had a few cases where we’ve received travel and itinerary advice from the border guards. Really nice to hear the kind words and to see the pride that person has in his/her country.

    @Leslie: Crossing borders – especially land borders – is always an adventure of some sort. You’re right – you never know what to expect…or even whether the immigration officer has showed up for work!

    As for Bolivia, the visa regime towards the United States is definitely politically motivated – Evo Morales is not a huge fan of the States. But we found regular Bolivians really friendly and very excited that we were American since they don’t meet many Americans. It’s really a shame the visa prevents more people from visiting – it’s such a beautiful country.

  31. John says

    Good post, but a few things you might want to mention:

    a.) The place where you procure your visa enormously varies in cost, length of visa, and processing time and is well worth being smart and ‘shopping around’. For example, the $120 USD you paid for a single entry Chinese visa in Tashkent would have given you a 5 year multi-entry for the same price if acquired in the US (same thing goes for Brazilian visas). Or on the opposite side of the spectrum, a Syrian visa that costs $130 USD to get in the US (or other countries) can be had for $16 if you just show up at the Jordanian boarder (and you get to see one of the most humorous ‘McDonaldsesque’ visa fee boards around…..$260 USD if you’re from the Democratic Republic of the Congo but free if you’re from North Korea!) A single entry Vietnamese visa that costs $90 USD and takes 3 days in Bangkok can be had for $60 and gotten in 3 minutes (yes, 3 minutes. OK, maybe 2 actually) in Vientiane, Laos. Literally worth time and money to check where to get the best price/length of validity/least amount of hassle.

    b.) You should put in a fourth column for ‘visa support fees’ (aka ‘Letters of Invite’). The former Soviet states (where this is still most prevalent, but does show up in places like Iran and some African countries) still cling to this and can substantially increase the cost of a visa. (i.e. the Russian visa that costs $130 USD (had here in NYC) suddenly costs $200 USD (or higher!) when you put in the variable costs of a ‘LOI’ ($30 to $350 depending on who issues it) and ‘visa registration fees’ ($40 to $100) once you’re in the country). So sad that this prevents folks from visiting some of the most beautiful (and culturally interesting) spots on earth.

    c.) Bolivia only started charging visas in Dec. 07 and as you noted is valid for 5 years. Argentina and Chile are now also do this as well (though those are good for the lifetime of the passport). (side note: if entering Chile by land, no visa is needed). What you don’t mention is the reason why the US is in with ‘the bad guys': reciprocity. Most of these countries (at least in South America, Turkey, etc) only started charging high visa fees in a direct reflection of what the USA charges their citizens to visit the country. We complain about how much this stuff costs, but the $200 USD charged (per visit) to a Cambodian national (which is about 3 months salary on average) is a tad bit more extreme. Not to mention that the US keeps this fee if they are rejected (after a 3 day interview process and with no real reason given). $135 for 5 years is a great deal comparatively. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t realize that it’s their own government’s fault for this situation. Something to keep in mind when you’re standing in the visa line with cash in hand while others walk right in for free.

  32. says

    @John: You bring up some very good points. We deliberately paired back the scope of this article with the intent of writing about some of these topics in other articles.

    It is amazing how visa regulations change for the same country depending upon the Embassy you go to. It is so important to do your research first – as you wrote, it can save you time, money and lots of headaches to apply at the “right” place.

    For example, we got our Chinese visa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan specifically for the reason that if we had gotten it in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan we would have needed to show proof of a tour and it would have likely been a 30 day visa. But sometimes getting a visa from your own home country is the best – as in the example of China or Brazil. As we didn’t live in the United States for five years prior to this trip it wasn’t an option to stock up on visas in advance.

    With the Bangladesh visa, Malaysia and Singapore rejected us because we weren’t residents of those countries while in Thailand it didn’t matter in the least that we were just tourists. So, same country visa regulations, different implementation based on the Embassy and Consul.

    Good idea on adding a LOI column for the visa chart. Until now, the only countries where we needed this were Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This adds about $70 to the total.

    With Argentina and Chile, if you cross by land you don’t get charged the reciprocity fee. We went back and forth between the two countries about 5-6 times without any problems or fees.

    I understand the rationale for countries charging reciprocity fees for US citizens, but what doesn’t make sense to me is when EU and Canadian citizens go in for free even though their countries also charge high amounts for tourist visas. Why not charge reciprocity fees for them? It mainly comes down to politics and there’s a lot of bad blood with the US government around the world. The people who suffer from this are ordinary people – the American who wants to travel to a place, but chooses against it because the visa fee is high (i.e., why we saw tons of Americans in Peru, but only 2 in 2 months in Bolivia) and the local people running businesses who miss out from additional tourist income.

  33. John says

    Or you may need a tour depending on your nationality. Oddly enough, I just got the ‘LOI’ number approved for going to Iran right after my last comment. As an American, I have to go on a tour and getting ‘the number’ approved took 12 weeks (so long that I actually researched a whole different vacation as a backup….and almost bought tickets yesterday!) Now it could be another month to get the actual visa (if approved). I’ll admit that this is the longest visa process I’ve ever had to go though….and hopefully will be well worth it.

    As for the fee rational, yes, in certain circumstances it does come down to issues with the US government (Iran being a good example). In other cases (such as why the fine folks from Canada and the EU pay less), it also comes down to numbers and $$ (or £, €, and Â¥). Let’s face it, Americans (as a whole) don’t travel much outside of North America (Caribbean, etc). If you’ve got 100K Europeans or Canadians vs only 500 Americans coming to your country and they are bringing with them a currency that hasn’t massively devalued over the last few years, you tend to lower your prices (and charge anything for sale in country reflected in Euros). Raising visa prices can backfire though. I remember paying $100 USD for a 3 month Turkish visa in 2003?), which previously charged nothing for US passport holders. That fee was dropped to $20 when I was last there in 2008, undoubtedly due to the drop in tourism numbers.

  34. says

    @John: Turkmenistan was the same as Iran – an official tour was needed to get the LOI. Interesting about it taking 12 weeks the number to process for the visa to Iran – are you applying in the United States? We’re looking into this process, but will apply in either Berlin or Prague. Wondering what we’re facing with this process in Europe.

    From our experience, “reciprocity” fees are suddenly introduced when a country gets fed up with US tactics — whether it’s political or visa process/fees or security related (e.g., requiring thumbprints or photos). I agree that it can backfire and hurts regular people in the process. In the example I used before – there’s a reason why Ecuador and Peru (both with free visas for Americans) are full of American travelers and Bolivia isn’t. Even a couple commentators mentioned they didn’t go to Bolivia because of the visa fees. That’s a shame for everyone.

  35. says

    Hehe, I loved these little anecdotes – especially the one about Georgia, lol. I don’t know if South Africans are allowed to add extra pages to their passports, I’ve always gotten new ones, and although your supposed to submit the old passport when you apply for a new one, I have always managed to get away without doing it. Passports are special. They remind us of where we’ve been and who we were at the time. I can’t think of any frequent travellers who don’t have strong affections for their passports.

  36. says

    @Sunee: I had fun remembering and writing these anecdotes as well. So many great memories bundled together in my passport.

    The United States is one of the few countries that allow extra pages in passports – not quite sure why that is, but I’m very thankful for it. Glad to hear you’ve been able to get away with keeping your old passport when you’ve applied for new ones. It would be really sad not to have those passport memories.

  37. John says

    @Audrey: Yes, we (my wife and I) will be applying to the Iranian special interests section in Washington (part of the Pakistani embassy). I have heard that the easiest place to pick up the visa is in Istanbul and the hardest is Washington, but we unfortunately don’t have the extra time to hang around Istanbul. (Nothing like the US for giving you limited vacation time). We went though an Iranian based tourist agency though (PARS/key2persia) for the actual arrangements.

    Unfortunately being photoed/finger printed is becoming more and more the norm these days (Japan does this and we will be finger printed on entry into Iran).

    The other odd thing worth mentioning with a US passport (besides extra pages) is the validity (10 years), even if you don’t have an ‘electronic’ (RFID) passport. The last of the ‘normal’ ones will expire mid-2017.

  38. says

    Great post! My passport has two sets of extra pages already and I’ve only had it for two years! My favorite stamps are from Mongolia, where the passport stamps are in the shapes of nomadic gers.

  39. says

    @John: Thanks for sharing a bit more about the visa process you’re going through for Iran. I’ve also heard that Bangkok is an easy place to pick up a visa to Iran as well. Hoping European cities are more on the Istanbul side than Washington, DC side.

    In this last year, we’re noticing a lot more photographing/fingerprinting at airports around the world. Malaysia does this now, as does Tanzania.

    My passport expires at the end of 2016, so I’ll have to finally get a the chip one at that point…but hopefully not before!

    @Chelsea: That is so cool – passport stamps in the shape of a nomadic ger (yurt)!! Wish more countries were more creative with their stamps and visas.

  40. John says

    @Audrey: Hopefully. We can apply for the visa 3 business days after the number has been issued. Evidently the M.F.A sends the number by Telex….(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telex) to the embassy that you chose when you started the process (i.e. 12 weeks ago for us). I’ve also heard that it is very difficult to change the embassy where you pick it up, so it’s best to think of this up front carefully.

    @Chelsea: The Seychelles use a female Coco de Mer nut (dubbed ‘the worlds sexiest passport stamp’) and Mauritius uses a Do Do bird.

  41. says

    I used to love the countries that issued those flashy whole-page visas because they made my passport look so exciting. Now that I’m about to run out of pages, I get frustrated every time they give me one of those ones that take up so much space!! :)

  42. says

    Great post. I always enjoy flipping through my old passport (only one measly set of extra pages :) I was so sad when it expired and I had to get a new one. Then after just a year, had to get another one because I got married and changed my name! I need to start a little chart of my own just for passport expenses.

  43. says

    @John: We’re planning on staying in Berlin until early October, so this is why we planned to use the Embassy here. The question is whether we can finish the process in time. However, we have permanent residency in the Czech Republic…which is why the Embassy in Prague might be good. First step is getting the tour voucher…

    Good luck getting your visa in DC in a few days!

    @Michael: Isn’t it funny how one’s perspective changes when scarcity enters into the equation? I do admit that I still love the flash, full-page visas. The more colors and foreign script, the better!

    @Claire: Your comment made me think about how fun it would be to put all the passports from a life together in a row. Each photo represents a different stage in life. When we got married, I kept my name the same – didn’t think about the cost savings of that :)

  44. Bluegreen Kirk says

    Hey Audrey thats one big passport! Additional three times my book looks like a single page compared to that huge dictionary of travel. Didn’t know all Americans were rich! Someone owes me..lol

  45. says

    @Kirk: It is a bit bulky, but I’ll take the bulk over the hassle of getting a new one. When the Chinese consul made the joke about all Americans being rich, I tried to deflect it by saying that we’re not all Bill Gates. Humor didn’t translate…

  46. says

    @Michael: Glad to hear you have a similar love affair with your passport. It’s not so much about the stats, but about the associated experiences and stories. Looking forward to filling these new pages!

  47. says

    @JoAnna: Thanks! And these are just a fraction of the stories…had to cut them down so that this didn’t end up like a novel-length post :)

    @Samuel: 48 pages is still pretty big for a passport. You likely have at least 1-2 extra sets of pages that can go in there, so you’re on your way!

  48. John says

    @Audrey: The kind folks in D.C. processed our visa in four days. (Passports were delivered to the Interests Section on Monday @ 9:30am and they were sent back Thursday afternoon via overnight FedEx and arrived on Friday @ 12:30pm). Total turn around time (for Americans) of 13 weeks (12 of which were waiting for ‘the number’, so I’d suggest you start the process sooner than later!)

    The visa itself is valid for 15 days (our tour is 14), but I think you can get a maximum time of 30 days. Beautiful design on it (lots of flowers) with your submitted picture (veiled of course) and validity dates in Persian and International calendars.

  49. says

    @John: Thanks for the update on the time needed to get your Iranian visa after receiving the authorization number. The tour company we’re working with keeps telling us that it will take 30 days for the authorization number, but based on your experience we should plan for more time rather than less.

    Now the exciting part begins! Good luck with your journey to Iran! Look forward to hearing about it.

  50. John says

    @Audrey: Yes, I had originally heard that it was up to 45 days. Then I realized it might be business days (~8/9 weeks with holidays) instead of calendar days and it started to make more sense.

    Thanks!

  51. says

    Cool post…definitely a chubby passport! If my passport could talk, it would say, “Good thing you got the visa for Syria in advance…” When I got to the border (coming from Jordan), the official I dealt with was not in a good mood. If I had chanced it, I’m 100% sure it would not have gone well. Was worth getting it before I went!

  52. says

    @Lisa: Great story! If we have the opportunity to get a visa in advance rather than at the border we’ll do it, just for the reasons you mention here. Sometimes you get someone in a bad mood or perhaps someone looking to make some extra money. Nice peace of mind to arrive at a border (especially a land border) with the visa already nicely in your passport.

  53. Harry says

    As you were talking about the visa fees, it is what is commonly known as “reciprocity policy”. US visas are extremely expensive for visa-nationals: a visitors visa to US costs 160USD therefore equivalently, when US citizens apply for visas at foreign embassies, they ask them for a rough equivalent of 160USD. Unfortunate for Americans but blame the government.

    Brazil and China do this in the most obvious ways: Brazil directly charges US citizens for a “Reciprocity fee” of 140USD whereas China explicitly sets a price for US citizens. The guy working at the Chinese embassy probably just doesn’t know the actual reason of why it’s more expensive for americans…..and old people in China were taught to be “anti-americans”.

    As you said, I guess bolivia categorises US into “Third-world countries” only due to the existence of a huge American population, which means they can collect more visa fees.

    Even when non-visa nationals, like UK-citizens and French-citizens come to the US, we still need to get an electronic travel permission which costs 14USD or 9GBP. However when Americans come to Europe they get both “visa-free” and “free visa”.

    Anyway blame US government for being so cheap to foreigners……..respect to America & Americans though cool country which I’d like to visit over again and again

    Greetings from UK!

  54. Hanwei says

    As you were talking about the visa fees, it is what is commonly known as “equivalent policy”. US visas are extremely expensive: a visitors visa to US costs 160USD therefore equivalently, when US citizens apply for visas at foreign embassies, they ask them for a rough equivalent of 160USD. Unfortunate for Americans but blame the government.

    Brazil and China do this in the most obvious way: Brazil directly charges US citizens for a “Reciprocity fee” of 140USD whereas China explicitly sets a 150USD fee for US citizens.

  55. Hanwei says

    actually it’s called “reciprocity policy”… it’s common in a lot of countries..if you go to the website of the Brazilian consulate general in US, you’ll see they have a whole table of fees for different nationalities..

    As for my country China, Chinese visa for serbians cost 5USD I believe, because serbian visa for Chinese citizens also cost 5USD. US visa would cost 160USD for anyone of any nationality (which is definitely over-priced) therefore for many countries, when an US citizen applies for a visa, it will cost an equivalent of 160USD.

    About Bolivia categorising US into “third-world countries”, I believe that is purely because…….they want the visa fee from the Americans because there are just simply so many!

  56. says

    @Harry/Hanwei: I agree that it doesn’t make sense for nationalities who don’t need visas to the United States to have to purchase an electronic travel permission. Not only does this create more paperwork, but it discourages travel to the United States.

    Reciprocity fees for American citizens is rather common around the world – Argentina and Chile do the same – and I can’t say I blame countries for implementing them. Unfortunately, however, it does sometimes mean that American citizens don’t visit those countries because of the fees. And then the local economy misses out on those tourism dollars. We only saw 2 American tourists in Bolivia in the course of almost 2 months because of the fee while Peru and Ecuador was full of Americans. Many people told us it was because of the fee and paperwork hassle.

    Let’s hope one day we’ll have a smoother paperwork system for crossing borders!

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