Looking back over the last decade, if I added up the number of hours spent filling in visa application forms, travelling to embassies and listening to hold muzak on a loop in long phone queues, I’d probably have enough time to, well, take a holiday. After all that, I certainly needed one.
So, when Kenya – one of my repeat visit destinations – announced visas would be dropped at the beginning of 2024, I breathed great relief. No more two-hour online forms requiring my dad’s mobile phone number and the uploading of hotel reservations as jpgs no larger than 297kb. (In practice, a new Electronic Travel Authorisation must be applied for 72 hours prior to travel so the process isn’t completely hassle-free.)
Albeit prone to a bit of disappearing cash and corruption, it was so much easier in the days of visa on arrival. The introduction of an e-visa system brought with it new levels of nonsensical bureaucracy not known since British authorities left.
Kenya isn’t an isolated case. Getting a visa is a hurdle to visiting many countries. According to visa and passport specialist Travcour, which processes up to 5,000 applications per year, Ghana currently holds the title for most complicated visa application process: an online form, followed by paying to book an appointment, uploading ten documents, then turning up to the embassy with a passport.
It’s even worse if the country in question doesn’t have a UK embassy. I once waited at home for two months while my passport floated around Paris, only to cancel a trip to Chad when the visa still hadn’t arrived by the date I was due to fly.
James Willcox, founder of travel company Untamed Borders, who specialise in visiting “interesting and inaccessible places”, has encountered similar issues.
“Despite the hospitality of people in the region, a trip to the embassy or consulate is less about rolling out the red carpet and more about rolling out the red tape,” he says. “We have had guests issued visas with the wrong dates, occasionally been given the visa for someone else and on one occasion accidently had their passport shredded by the embassy staff.”
Visa on arrival isn’t always easier. Willcox recalls an incident in 2012 when the issuing of visas “on a sensitive border” was abruptly suspended without announcement.
“There was talk of a diplomatic row or a military incursion,” he says. “Finally, it was discovered that the service had been stopped because they had run out of visa stickers and one of the immigration staff had to get the bus to the capital to get some more. This was not a banana republic either, but a border between two nuclear powers.”
Of course, securing visas to countries off the beaten track will always be much trickier. But even more popular destinations aren’t without complications.
Back in 2022, India’s visa debacle caused thousands to miss their holidays due largely to a diplomatic stand-off between then prime ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson. Currently, an application for Tanzania can take up to four weeks, according to Travcour. And early last year, my application for a visa to Bhutan, a country eager to court tourism but a stickler for rules, was initially rejected because the photograph submitted didn’t show enough of my ears.
Even simple things can trip people up. “People don’t understand that place of birth is a very important thing to match your passport,” explains Darren Bridges, director for Travcour. “For example, I might write London on a form, but my passport might say Tooting. Another common one for India is writing ‘British’ when the authorities want to read ‘United Kingdom’. There are so many potholes, which is why we have our purpose – if it takes a person an hour and a half to fill out a form, we can do it in six minutes.”
Applying for visas undoubtedly requires investment of time and money. But there’s a financial cost to consider too. Bridges says Nigeria currently charges Britons the highest amount – around £660. My most expensive visa mission to date was China – rated one of the most laborious to obtain since the country opened its borders to foreigners post-Covid, and one of several countries requiring biometrics. Admittedly it was a fast-track, multi-entry visa secured through an agency, but I still spent more than £1,000.
Surprisingly, all these costs and complications aren’t a deterrent for committed travellers.
“Often there is a special reason for going to these places, which makes travellers more determined,” says Candice Buchan, head of tour operator Rainbow. “It means that sales and marketing functions of tourist boards and tour operators need to work a bit harder to articulate why you’d visit a destination like that, but arguably you get a higher-value traveller that is travelling with real intent.”
Plus, let’s not forget that – in spite of Brexit – we still have one of the world’s most powerful passports. Listed joint-14th in the 2024 Henley Passport Index, British documents give visa-free access to 191 destinations, compared with 187 a year ago.
Furthermore, there are always those odd occasions when the application process is smoother than expected.
“In the mid-noughties, I was queueing in Tehran for an Uzbek visa when I was pulled out of the line, my passport taken and then led to a separate, well-appointed room,” says James Willcox, recalling another anecdote. “I was given a cup of tea, some cake and was asked if I could complete the ambassador’s son’s English homework. I agreed, and upon completion, I was given my passport back complete with the Uzbek visa. The usual waiting time is five days.”