Most of us who travel have a pretty solid idea of how long we want to travel for, and how much money we’ve got to do it. Incidentals like an impromptu hot-air-balloon flight or wreck diving can really add up, but at least they’re fun. But unexpected visa and reciprocity fees can really take the wind out of your sails. Below you’ll find a detailed explanation of which countries in South America have or soon will have visa and reciprocity fees for American passport holders, and some tips for (legally) minimizing their impact on your budget.
Don’t let this be you
With guidebooks having a year-or-two lead-time between research and publishing, and a shelf-life of a couple of years, it’s inevitable that things will have changed. I recently met two American scientists in the north of Chile who had planned their trip with laser-like precision. They were all over the world, with caches and stashes and friends meeting them at airports even for short layovers.
What they didn’t have was an up-to-date guidebook, which led to a hasty goodbye to their bus-mates traveling overland from Argentina to Bolivia, where they, sadly would be refused entry unless they bought a border-priced visa. At US$135 per person, an on-the-spot visa was wince-worthy, and did not fit into their short-term budget. And so they collected their luggage, got off the bus, and walked across the double yellow line to the other side of road to flag down a bus going back to where they’d come from, a bit poorer and not only a little dejected.
The best policy is to do a little research on the visa/reciprocity issues (as well as border skirmishes and anything else the US State Department has to offer) before you go. Here’s a roundup of the current state of affairs for US passport holders.
Visa countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Suriname
A visa is a sticker or stamp in a passport that grants the passport bearer the right to enter the country that issues it, either as a one-time entry, or for multiple entries, with the length of time granted varying from country to country and person to person. Be sure to read your visa carefully. Although Bolivia and Brazil both give you five years as a default, the maximum stay for any one visit is 90 days. Visa prices vary widely by country, and may be different depending on your citizenship.
Bolivia instituted its visa-for-Americans program on Dec 1, 2007, which made it the third heavily-visited South American country to charge what is essentially an entry tax to eagle-bearing passport holders like you and me. The visa application comes with a set of requirements including passport-sized photos, round trip tickets or an explanation of the route you’ll take and a yellow fever certificate. If you decide to work this out ahead of time, you’ll pay only US$100, rather than the US$135 at the border, where travelers report that officials sometimes administer yellow-fever vaccinations on the spot and do away with the other requirements, other than the cash.
Brazil also requires US-passport holders to apply for a tourist visa, at a cost of $130, which Brazil’s consular website points out, is the identical sum that Brazilians are charged to apply for a visa to the United States.
You’ll pay the fee, and fill out paperwork including the photos, passport photocopies and a paragraph explaining what you plan to do in Brazil. Be circumspect here. You want to get to know the culture and see the sights, not party like a rockstar in Ipanema. The Brazilian visa cannot be purchased at the border, or at the airport, and your airline may check that you have the visa before are permitted to get on the plane.
Paraguay, the little-visited landlocked nation nuzzling Argentina’s shoulder, also requires American passport holders to obtain a visa. The fees here are US$45 for a one-time entry (valid for 90 days), or US$65 for multiple-entries, applied for in advance. Rumors abound of people walking across the bridge from Brazil into Ciudad del Este without a second glance towards immigration, and no visa in their passport. True? Certainly. Wise? Certainly not.
Suriname is the only country in the northern part of South America to require Americans to have a visa. Travel to Suriname by Americans is sparse, but those that decide to make the Dutch-speaking plunge will pay US$100 as a visa fee.
Reciprocity fees and countries
A reciprocity fee is money which one country charges the citizens of another to enter their country because the reverse is also done. Chile already has reciprocity fees, and, for American citizens the amounts charged are equal to the amount charged to citizens of those countries when they apply for visas to enter the United States. Argentina was scheduled to put a reciprocity fee in effect, then delayed its implementation from January to March of 2009, and has now suspended it indefinitely.
While the stringbean slim nation of Chile does not require Americans to have a visa to enter, there is a one-time-per passport fee of US$131 dollars for US-passport holders to enter the republic. Several other nationalities also pay a reciprocity fee (Australia, Canada, Mexico and Albania) though the amount varies by country. Take comfort in the knowledge that while most Chileans (and most people in the world, it seems) will be rejected for a tourist visa to the United States, the almighty dollar is at work here and will sail you through the reciprocity booth at Arturo Merino Benítez airport a bit poorer, but pretty much assured of entry.
Argentina has for some time been the southern-cone traveler’s antidote to expensive entry fees and visas. It had announced plans to implement a reciprocity fee, but has now put these on hold indefinitely. Perhaps it’s due to the failing economy and realizing that another $131 dollars (the original proposed fee) could keep people from flying to Buenos Aires. While at the moment, Argentina will let you hold onto your hard-earned cash, keep an eye on this one for the future.
Some legal loopholes
So what’s a traveler to the southern cone and environs to do? Ideally you add another several hundredish dollars to your travel budget, and call it a day. Realistically, however, as you raise your eyebrows and think of perhaps a trip to Cambodia, instead, consider these tips that can make your trip to the southern cone a little less painful. Sneaking across borders, which runs afoul of multiple international laws, is not recommended. But with a little creative planning, you can exert some damage control before you even get started.
This is the least exciting option, limiting yourself to countries that are free for you to enter, or visiting only one or two pricey ones on your trip. For a week or two-week trip, this is tenable. But if you’ve given up your apartment and kissed your pooch goodbye, do you really want to get only a single stamp in your passport?
Visa and Reciprocity: The same, yet different
First and foremost, remember that while the visa regulations apply regardless of where or how you enter the country, the reciprocity fees at the moment seem to only be collected at international airports. This presents a tidy legal loophole. As of today, in Chile only the Santiago airport is set up to charge the reciprocity fee. In the eventual implementation of Argentina’s fee, it might follow suit and charge entry only at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport.
So travel overland
What does this mean to you? In the case of Chile you’ll want to focus on overland (or oversea) travel into the country, which means entering Chile from Peru (no visa) or Bolivia (visa required), or Argentina, which hopefully will not be enacting its reciprocity fee any time soon.
This wee nation, (along with for the moment, Argentina) South America requires nothing more than a passport with six months more of validity and an onward ticket. Smiling couldn’t hurt, you’ve entered a country for free! There’s quirky, stately architecture, fresh pasta and beaches to be explored, and in just a few hours from Montevideo you can be in Colonia, a cobblestoned gem of a town, which is actually on the way to Buenos Aires.
Start in Peru
Peru currently has neither visa nor reciprocity fees. So why not start here? You can fly into Lima, toodle along through the sights and flavors, including of course Machu Picchu and the Colca Canyon before making yet another backbreaking bus journey to Tacna, from which you can taxi across the border to Arica, Chile. Peru is worth a visit, even if it wasn’t on your original itinerary (though it should have been), and if you’ve got a really good arm, it’s just a stone’s throw from Chile and Argentina.
The key here is flying into a country that either has no visa/reciprocity fee or into one for which you were planning to pay a visa fee anyway. Yes, I am warning you against flying into Chile, a country which is incredible to visit in every way, from the painted deserts in the north to the lakes regions in the mid south and the wobbly toddlery penguins and soaring craggy rocks in the way south. But with reciprocity fees that swallow a chunk of your budget, you’ll have to think twice about making Chilito your South American starting point.
So in summation for the single-nationality US passport holders, visas are required for Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Suriname. Reciprocity is charged in Chile at the airport in Santiago. Keep an eye on Argentina, should they put their reciprocity fee into effect. And what about Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Guyana, French Guyana and Uruguay? Well they all have a giant welcome sign with your name on it. (See map)
So plan your trip accordingly, and don’t get caught unaware on a bus zooming towards a border crossing where you’ll be fleeced with no prior warning. We like to leave that to the pickpockets on the street.
Or you could always go to Asia instead.
Start planning your trip to South America:
- Five Unexpected Treasures of South America
- How to Get Around Visa Fees in South America
- 10 Places in South America to Escape the Northern Winter
- Wine Tasting in South America: Where to Go and What to Try
- Check out HostelTrail for South American hostels
Read more about author Eileen Smith and check out her other BootsnAll articles.
Additional photo credits: South America map by Eileen Smith, passport photos by berbercarpet, US passport by Alexic.