The Most Difficult Countries for Americans to Visit

The stars and stripes won't get you far in these countries

As I mentioned in my recent article about the world's best passports, the U.S. passport is right up there with the best of them, allowing you visa-free access to at least 173 countries as of April 2015. Several countries remain practically off-limit to Americans, however, certainly independent American travelers.

While none of the countries I'm about to list officially ban American visitors, the difficulty of obtaining the proper visa – and the various other hoop you'll need to jump through – could be enough to dissuade you from visiting altogether.

  • 01 of 05

    North Korea

    Mansudae Grand Monument, statues of former Presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
    ••• Gavin Hellier/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

    Many people believe that Americans can't visit North Korea at all, but the fact is that unless you're a Christian missionary, you're probably in the clear. Well, if you're coming to North Korea with a government-approved tour company, stay with your guide the whole time, avoid conversation and even eye contact with ordinary North Koreans and aren't a journalist, politician or any other professional North Korean's totalitarian regime might consider threatening.

    You'll also need to have the good fortune not to plan your visit at the same time North Korea has its border closed, which often happens without rhyme or reason, most recently during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

  • 02 of 05

    Iran

    Iran
    ••• It's a good thing for Americans that so many images of Persian architecture exist online. Paul Keller via Flickr

    As is the case with North Korea, Iran allows American visitors – you just have to be on an organized tour for the entire duration of your stay, and not leave your guide's side under most circumstances. Where many people who might otherwise be able to visit Iran get tripped up is the so-called "authorization code," which your tour company must provide to the Iranian government in order to finalize visa approval. This often happens with weeks or even days to spare before your arrival, which can make you even more anxious about your trip to Iran than you probably are.

  • 03 of 05

    Cuba

    Cuba
    ••• Cuba embodies the phrase "So close, but so far away.". HYanWong via Wikimedia Commons

    Americans have been traveling to Cuba illegally for years – but it's always been a matter of flying to Canada, Mexico or some other "third" country, then hopping over to Havana. Contrary to the beliefs of many Americans, the illegality of such a journey has to do with American law, not Cuban.

    But now, Americans can travel to Cuba legally and even book direct flights to many of the country's largest cities, including, most recently, Havana. The trip still requires a visa, though, and all visitors must fall into one of 12 categories of permitted travel. 

  • 04 of 05

    Libya

    Libya Oasis
    ••• Wouldn't you love to see this oasis in the Libyan Sahara? So would I – too bad. Lucag via Wikimedia Commons

    Libya's place in the news the past several years can be summarized in three words: Qaddafi; Benghazi; ISIS. In spite of this, the country – namely, its portion of the Sahara Desert – is among the most unspoiled treasures of North Africa. Unfortunately traveling to Libya, especially in today's political climate, is near impossible for Americans.

    While the Libyan government has officially been issuing visas to U.S. citizens since 2010, there's no rhyme or reason when it comes to the approval process, nor any statistics on how often they grant approval – I hear it isn't often. Plus, with the number of terrorist groups who've set up shop in Libya thanks to the vacuum the failed 2011 intervention left, the R.O.I. for travel to Libya just isn't very high right now.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Saudi Arabia

    Mecca
    ••• Saudi Arabia isn't Mecca for U.S. passport holders. Al Jazeera English via Twitter

    You would think, given Saudi Arabia's reputation as an American "ally," that visiting this oil-rich kingdom would be relatively easy for us. Unfortunately, while the geopolitical realities of the world continue our countries' mutual dependency on one another, it's very difficult for Americans to visit Saudi Arabia solely for tourism purposes.

    Tip: If you're an American and want to visit Saudi Arabia, consider finding a job teaching English or working in the oil and gas sector. This not only permits you legal entry into the Kingdom, but a handsome salary that counteracts the notoriously high costs of traveling there.