Getting to Algiers
This one came down to the wire. I left PDX a week ago, not knowing where I’d be seven days later. All bets were on Algeria—I had a confirmed hotel reservation and a non-refundable plane ticket. What I didn’t have, unfortunately, was a visa.
The embassy in D.C. kept stalling, asking for a notarized letter explaining I was really a tourist and not a spy, then waiting for approval from Algiers itself. But while I was in Belarus last week (more on that in a moment), they came through in the proverbial nick of time. My visa service, which will probably charge me double next time since I pestered them so much, agreed to FedEx my passport to Frankfurt. I flew from Minsk to Frankfurt, landing at 7pm and getting to my hotel an hour later. I had visions of the hotel clerk saying, “No sir, there’s nothing for you here”—but in fact there was a FedEx letter, and in fact it did contain the passport and visa. The next morning I went to Madrid, and then on to Algiers.
If you have what I call a “rich country passport” (USA, Canada, UK, EU, Australia, etc.) then you don’t have to worry about needing visas for about half of the countries in the world. The trouble is, those are the easy countries. Going to the harder ones almost always requires a visa, sometimes obtainable upon arrival for a fee, but many other times needing to be arranged well in advance.
I started traveling eight years ago because I loved to travel, not because I ever expected to end up on this crazy adventure. But now that I’m down to the final fifty, with a bit more than two years to go, I already know that I’ll have to become more deliberate in planning my trips. Like everything else, it’s a work in progress.
Until this week, I thought African governments were the most obsessed with paperwork (I once visited an office in Sierra Leone where papers were “filed” by stapling them directly to the wall), but now I know that Africa has nothing on Belarus. I had to fill out reams of papers before applying, still more before being accepted, and even more upon arriving at the airport. By the time I finished, I worried I had taken on a new citizenship or something.
I never really figured out why my two previous attempts at visiting the country failed. The service I used (a Belarusian one, naturally) just kept coming back with more and more problems. For this attempt I switched services, and that proved to be the right idea—though it was still not without difficulty. A highlight of the problems I had with the better service is outlined below.
Problems in Applying for a Belarusian Visa
1. Can not write “OR” for state – must write “OREGON.”
2. Can not write “Oregon” for state – must write “OREGON.”
3. Can not use “#” for “Number” – must write “NUMBER”
4. Digital signature not accepted on application.
5. Real signature must include each letter of name.
6. Real signature must be in black ink! No other color!
7. Visa card accepted for Canadian applicants; Americans must use only Mastercard.
8. Blue-colored Mastercards are not accepted (“image too dark for bank.”)
9. Signature on alternate Mastercard must match signature on application, even if signature on application is wrong due to requirement #5.
For each of these infractions, my application was sent back by the service for further revision. I finally got it right, or they finally realized I wasn’t going to give up, and I received the third batch of papers to be handed in at the airport. Arriving in Minsk last Tuesday, I dutifully turned in all five of these papers, but apparently there was a missing sixth one, for which my visa service was berated on the phone by the officials while I waited.
Then, Belarus set a new record in my 150-country journey: World’s Most Expensive 30-Day Visa. I was expecting it to be $125, but apparently that was last year’s price. This year’s price, as part of a special offer for U.S. citizens only, is $420.
Yep, $420—payable only in cash (the Mastercard charge was for the visa service, not the visa itself). I usually travel with about $1,000 in new hundreds and twenties, but this time I failed to take my own advice and had only $500. You’d think $500 would be enough for a $420 obligation—but no. Each bill is carefully inspected by a cadre of officials, and because some of my bills were a bit older, they were declined. Of my $500, $300 was deemed acceptable, but I would need to pay the remaining $120 some other way.
I had about €200 with me as well, so I asked if I could pay the balance with that. Nope—I could pay in dollars or euros, but not $300 in acceptable dollars and the equivalent of the remaining $120 in euros. So much for that plan.
I looked through the stack of rejected dollars. “Hmmm, this hundred looks pretty good to me,” I said, which they ignored. Nice try. A Lebanese guy waiting beside me with some other visa problem kindly offered to help. “I have some dollars I’ll trade you for,” he said. We checked with the officials and they turned out to be acceptable dollars. Great! Except… he only had $60 to trade. I made the trade and thanked him, but was still another $60 short.
In the end, the officials decided to send another official to accompany me through the immigration area without actually clearing immigration. (The other official had been busily reading the newspaper the whole time I was trying to pay, but he was a good sport about putting it down.) On the other side, where I’d be in Belarus without actually being in Belarus, we’d go to an ATM together and get the rest of the cash. We did that, but the machine didn’t like my card and refused to cooperate. Then we walked through the whole terminal to find another machine… with the same result. Finally, we walked through the other side of the terminal to find an actual bank. Could the bank use my debit card to withdraw the magic $60? Alas, they could not.
Belarusian Official and I hung our heads low and returned all the way back to the immigration office on the other side of security. “ATM trip fail,” he said to his colleagues, or at least that’s what I imagined he said. Expensive visa fail, I was thinking.
Then one of the officials hit on a simple idea that all of us had missed—I couldn’t combine dollars and euros to pay the $420, but since I had $360 in acceptable dollars and €200 in acceptable euros, I could return to the bank to change €50 of acceptable euros into $60 of acceptable dollars. Voila! What an idea.
Belarusian Official and I traipsed back to non-Belarus on the other side of security, then wandered down the corridors and up the stairs to the bank we had visited half an hour ago. Would our mission finally be a success? My heart sank as we approached the bank and the window was closed. Oh no!
To my eternal gratitude, I was rescued at this point by my friend the official, who I think was tired of doing so much walking. Belarusian Official knocked on the window and said “Open this f—ing window so I can go back to reading the paper”—or so I imagined. I’m not really sure what he said, but the window did open and a man did appear who was willing to exchange money. It’s always the small victories, yes?
Belarusian Official and I walked back to the immigration office, where I presented a grand total of $420 in acceptable dollars with a flourish. The officials pasted the visa into my passport and stamped it. I’d love to tell you a cheer went up, but this seemed more like the daily state of affairs in Minsk.
I could go on (and on…) about the situation—these are just the high points of a three-hour wait. The most interesting thing about the whole experience was how friendly everyone was. It was like they were combining Russian rules with African hospitality. The guy who gave up his newspaper-reading job to march me back and forth between the immigration office and the various exchange bureaus was very nice about it. He spoke a small amount of English, and I shared most of my limited Russian vocabulary with him (highlights: hello, thank you, airport, sorry, beer, vegetarian). The staff told me to leave my bag unattended for more than half an hour during one of the failed money-collecting attempts, and I didn’t even feel anxious about walking around without it.
After it was all over, the main official even smiled at me and said “Welcome to Belarus.” I thought that was nice. Half of the time when I come back to the states, the immigration guy doesn’t even say “Welcome to America,” which annoys me because it’s such a small thing to do that can make a big impression. Belarus was maddeningly difficult with all the bureaucracy, but no one was rude. Throughout the whole time I didn’t feel intimidated, worried, or stressed. (Though I was certainly tired—there is no JetBlue service from Portland to Misnk, and I hadn’t slept much the two nights before.)
Meanwhile, my driver was waiting outside, chain-smoking and looking bored. I apologized for the delay, but it didn’t seem like it was that unusual for this to happen. The car radio alternated between Russian rock and Phil Collins. “It’s just another day in paradise,” Phil sang as the driver took me to Hotel Planeta in the heart of central Minsk, 40 kilometers away. The driver smoked and I dozed off intermittently while looking out the window.
I’m not sure it’s paradise, but Belarus is an interesting little place. The rest of the trip, I walked around the city and went running in a big park. I took long naps but tried to avoid the dreaded eight-hour nap that begins at 2pm in the afternoon and leaves me wide awake with nothing to do all night. Not being able to converse with most people in a place like Belarus is sometimes difficult, but it also lends well to writing, thinking, dreaming, and walking. I like all of those things, though I could have done with a little less walking in the airport itself.
I’m writing you now, a few days after this experience, from Algiers in North Africa. I made it! Here in Algeria it seems all the bureaucracy happens in the beginning. Once you have the visa and show up, it’s an easy two-minute immigration queue with no questions asked. And yes, the guy said “Welcome to Algeria,” or in this case, he said “You are welcome,” which is always nice to hear when visiting a foreign land.
I haven’t seen much of North Africa yet, partly due to the security situation. In places like this, Westerners tend to congregate at resort hotels that offer everything except culture. This afternoon I’ll escape from the hotel compound and head out to see as much “real Algeria” as I can. After a few days here, my next stop is Chiang Mai, Thailand. After that I’ll head home, and my global wandering will be curtailed for several months as I pursue a different adventure.
Internet in Algeria is not cheap, but that’s OK because I need to get outside and remember why I travel in the first place. It’s not necessarily to deal with bureaucracy and listen to Phil Collins in Belarus. It’s not for the “Striptease Special” on offer at the Hotel Planeta, or even for the sun and sea in a place like Algiers. It’s more for my own internal motivations, which I don’t always claim to understand myself. But it makes me happy, so here I am.
Travel tip of the day: be sure to apply early if you need an Algerian visa, and be sure to bring plenty of acceptable dollars if you end up in Belarus.
1980s Algiers Image: MH
Ah, the feeling of accomplishment after emerging on the other side of a byzantine bureaucratic procedure. I love these kind of travel challenges, in moderation. Sometimes my own cushy life gets to feeling to easy.
Love the blog. I live in Phuket & see you are going to Chang Mai this week. If you get to Phuket email me & we can grab a drink. You can crash on the couch too.
That’s what I call adventure! I had similar problems when I immigrated to the US. The only difference is that most Americans are friendly and get bored quickly, so they would give up almost right away and just give me what I’d come for!
The major difference is that I speak english so dealing with US bureaucracy was relatively easy. In Belarus, it would be another story 🙂
Have a nice Algerian trip!
Just think how boring your story might have been without the money problems at the airport: “I finally got to Belarus. It was nice.”
It is a hassle when things like this happen, especially when you’re tired, but the stories I often tell from my travels generally involve the strange and annoying. Like the Aeroflot flight from Singapore to Moscow.
I just found your website a couple of days ago. I stumbled across it while researching digital nomads, I’ve always wanted to work online (writing is my first choice) and live in all sorts of interesting places but I had no idea this was an ‘official’, labeled way of life. Very inspiring, I love reading about your travels. I’m starting college in two weeks so it will be at least four years before I can really leave and start my nomadic life but still, I am very excited (and more than a little anxious…).
Anyways, have a lovely time in Algeria.
My favorite travel entry yet. Thank you so much for sharing, Chris! I was strangely riveted by the infuriating tedium of the visa acquisition process.
Welcome to Algiers !! I’m thrilled to know you’re out there, I don’t realize yet that you came to my country :-D.
Anyways, I hope you’ll enjoy your time here! If you need anything or any information or tips, just let me know, I’d be so glad to help.
P.S. May I ask where are you exactly? And how long you’re staying? Thanks.
I was actually in Algeria about 12 years ago for about two days. I didn’t have the troubles you did in getting into the country, but everything was organized by a tour group. The main regret I have about that trip is that we did nothing but what the tour group directed — I would have loved to see the ‘real’ Algeria.
Great story Chris and highly entertaining. Glad you made in through the whole process in style.
I wonder if you had been a resident of the United States of America instead of an American, the Visa card would have been accepted instead of just MasterCard? Maybe the immigration officials in Belarus were somewhat wary as an American can come from either North, Central or South America and quite a few countries in the Americas are on a ”watch list”. Being from Canada, I could proudly say that I am also an American, couldn’t I? Of course, but I’ll stick to Canadian in my travels.
I often use “North America” in a geographical sense, but when you are traveling abroad and someone asks if you are American, they always mean USA. And every Canadian I know would say they are from Canada, not America.
Wow! This shows how closely related adventure and misadventure can be, depending on your outlook in life!
Thanks for sharing your story.
I was in Belarus last year but I didn’t plan on it. I was on the train from St.Petersburg to Kiev and had no idea there was a short stop in Belarus. I was kicked off the train when they realized I didn’t have a visa and sent to Gomel (at this point I had no idea where I was and my mobile phone didn’t work). The visa office was closed (it was Sunday) but the police officer who escorted me there had already left (the one who assured me I could get my visa here). So I was on my own with 2 heavy bags to lug on the crappy sidewalks. Went to the hotel near the train station and they said I couldn’t stay there because I had no visa. I explained my situation (luckily my Russian isn’t as bad as 2 years ago) and they called their director. I was allowed to stay there and the director helped me with the police the next day. I paid 150,000 Belarussian rubles for a fine and a transit visa (~$50). I was surprised at how well I was treated, the people there were very helpful – maybe I just got lucky.
Great story Chris–thank you. The gracious humanity of it made me smile. Happy travels!
I read the part about Belarus and I can confirm your bureaucracy challenge. Here in Belarus its everywhere. Its annoying very much but it some slavic behavior to rack the people when someone got control or leading over them. Very intresting reading 🙂
Have you ever tried to apply for American Visa? (I’m from Belarus. Hello!) – Don’t tell us about the problems! 😉
BTW, as soon as the requirements/rules are clearly stated somewhere (embassy website?), I think it should be easy to apply them.
Yes, I know it is often difficult for foreigners to visit the USA, and I’m sorry about that. If i could change it, I would!
Absolutely hysterical! Note to self: Skip Belarus unless very bored.
Thats amazing Chris! Way too stay level headed and persevere ! I hope you are enjoying Algeria! My dad is actually from there and I have been once when I was younger! Actually, a fiasco when I was 9 years old ( I am now 25) we were waiting in Charles De Gaulle to fly to Algeria, and the President of Algeria got ousted! So several days later after everything calmed down I was able to get to Algeria and see my grandma, grandpa and cousins! The excitement of Africa 🙂 Safe Travels back to the states!
Loved this post….I’m amazed that you can recall every detail after all that. Glad you’re safe and sound…running, relaxing, and enjoying yet another country! Thanks for sharing!
Wishing you more safe travels!
Great story Chris! Found the random Visa vs Mastercard Canada vs USA rules particularly entertaining.
No other travel writer in the world will ever do you justice when it comes to talking about airports, visas and all that. It’s a crucial overlooked and ignored aspect of travel. It’s yet another of the many niches you control. Great work!
Thanks for the heads up in case I need to go to those countries! And yes Chris, you SHOULD apologise for difficulties for foreigners visiting the USA, it’s clearly your fault! 😛
I totally cracked up at the Phil Collins part – too funny!
Your ATM escapade reminded me of a nightmarish experience I had in De Gaulle a couple of years ago – we were trying to use a pay phone to call the people that were picking us up and we couldn’t get one to work no matter how many we tried. Between the stress of not being able to call the people (who I had never met before) and the soldiers with automatic weapons that were blocking our access to the rental car return area, I was seriously on the verge of a meltdown. When we finally got through, the nice Hertz guy let us use the phone, thankfully – we were about 2 minutes from being left stranded!
I hope the rest of your trip is awesome! 🙂
Ha! Love this post. Belarus bureaucracy sounds just like Czech bureaucracy- except Belorussians are nice! Isn’t it remarkable how far a pleasant demeanor can go? Thanks for sharing. My favorite part is the checklist of reasons your Visa was denied.
hahahahah! I love that East block way of doing things. It’s like being in a real life version of a black and white movie. The bureaucracy is from the 1940s but so are the manners…except when it gets really nasty then it’s from the dark side of the moon.
As for African borders…having grown up in Africa mostly (various countries) I have learnt the fool-proof method for getting past borders is:
1. Have it in your bones, your countenance, your body language and your DNA that….you have ALL the time in the world.
2. This requires more finesse to pick up on. It is sometimes useful to greet the official in his home language…BUT in general, if you are not sure do NOT do so.
Good luck with the remaining 50!
Yes, we do have rich country passport and that’s a blessing for most place we go!
Second, I still don’t get why in this world common sense doesn’t prevail to useless administrative burden… With all the respect I can, immigration official can be no brainer and a pain.
Well, congrats 🙂
Hi Chris, Just be thankful Belarus actually has ATMs/bank services at the airport! When you go to Sudan (if you haven’t been already), you will need to pay your arrival fee at the airport (after already having paid to get the visa) in acceptable currency, and the services at the airport are pretty limited. You also won’t be able to withdraw money without considerable difficulty while you’re in country, so make sure you carry adequate cash!
Wow, sounds like I had it easy with Belarus – or I just chose a visa service who had the right “in” with the embassy here in DC. It may be worth shopping around – I suspect they all have a different network of contacts which may make certain visas easier or harder for them.
What a story! I particularly liked the fact that they would only take certain dollar bills. Also, the list of your transgressions on the visa application are very funny. Your patience and determination is inspiring! Enjoy the rest of your trip.
This is hilarious and so perfectly written – thanks for the laughs!
Oh Chris, I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face! 😀
What a great post, one of my favorites for sure. As I read, it just kept getting better and better and I was struck by how absurd this story must sound to those who do not travel. Situations like these are what some of the best travel memories are made of, at least for me.
Thanks for sharing and I can’t wait to hear about the next adventure! 🙂
Thanks for this Chris. I think your story just made my morning! While I always hate the fact that I end up laughing at your misfortune (ie Saudi Arabia story), they really are good stories! Very glad to hear they finally let you in.
Thanks for the smile, Chris. As I read, I was thinking, “Wow, what an exercise in patience.” Good luck with the rest of the trip!
Every encounter with a different culture highlights how fortunate I am to live in a rich country. Imagine living in a place where you have to scrutinize your money to make sure that it is still viable currency. We wrinkle and stuff dollar bills in our pockets, never a concern that it might age the money and make it no longer acceptable. I recall an incident that happened during the Balkan war when two translators with a humanitarian group were taken hostage. An amazing ransom of $2,000 each was demanded. When the money was delivered they rejected about a third of it as being too old – and they returned the rejected money. Nothing over a year old was acceptable. It made me look at things in a new light. Just a side note – I almost always get a ‘welcome home’ when I go through immigration in the US. I feel pretty lucky about that too!
You should see how hard it is to get a visa with an Algerian Passport…to basically, anywhere in the world…
Go to Internet cafés instead of using the wireless at your hotel, it’s about 1 buck an hour…and don’t forget the harissa!
I have no desire to partake in this kind of traveling, but I must say, I am absolutely riveted by your columns and love reading about your adventures! I feel that I get to experience a bit of the world that I would not find in travel books or on TV travel shows. I can clearly picture the immigration officials in Belarus. And I am upset at our U.S. customs not welcoming people to America with pride and graciousness. People have literally died trying to make it to our amazing country. I almost want to start a campaign to welcome those visiting! I guess it’s the ex-Publicist in me 🙂 Thanks, Chris. Can’t wait to hear about the next adventure….
Chris, I love you. “Signature on alternate Mastercard must match signature on application, even if signature on application is wrong due to requirement #5.” & “Hmm, this hundred looks pretty good to me”! Hahaha. This story had me cracking up so bad. You must have the patience of a saint!
I’m also thrilled that you went through all of this for what probably appears to most as a short, unremarkable stay, which is in fact made all the more extraordinary because for you, it’s simply another step in following your dreams. How often we work diligently toward external goals, and slack off when it comes to the internal! You are ALWAYS an inspiration.
About a week ago, I was standing in the “no visa required” line at Borispol Airport in Kiev. Yes, I have an Oregon passport so no visa required for entry into Ukraine. The person behind me kept scowling at me and finally said, “you are in the wrong line, you need a visa.” The German man standing behind him chimed in and said, “Americans require a visa to get in”. When I responded that I did not despite the ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles that Ukrainians must surmount to enter the U.S., they were quite surprised.
Interestingly, the Delta agent at PDX also insisted that I needed a visa, until it was pointed out that indeed I did not.
To be clear, no visa for U.S. and Canadian passport holders to enter Ukraine. Thanks Chris for the amusing story of East Block mentality.
Enjoyed this much so, way to go! Rooting for you, always!
Phil Collins = funny.
You know Chris, I’ve learned so much from you about being an unconventional entrepreneur I’d forgotten what a helluva great travel writer you are. Great piece!
I read the whole thing 🙂 I knew it’ll end happily but it was interesting & exciting to read what you had to go through. Going to every country does not sound very easy task! But you did it.
Thank you for writing the glorious details & look forward to reading more on the rest of the places.
Very funny post, even though it was not funny for you at the time:) Very well written with all the lovely twists and details no fiction can ever dare go!
Seriously, I don’t even know what to say, I love that you persisted and were successful! Despite the frustrations, travel is worth it!!!
Great story, Chris. I hope you are laughing at the absurdity of it all… I sure am! Congratulations on getting to Algiers.
I think visa and immigration officials are funny at times. I recall entering a notoriously difficult country in Africa some years ago where I had lots of forms but not enough. An official took my problem to heart and ran around the border town demanding action from offices and banks, me in tow, to get everything sorted out. I found it funny that the same person that implemented such difficult rules was happy to find the path around them to make sure you met the guidelines. Half a day later I was Central African Republic and they seemed so chirpy about it. I’ll never really understand as they never sought a bribe (which is the more normal reason for some awkwardness at some borders).
I have to admit this was quite funny. The more I read, the more it sounded like something straight out of Terry Gilliams’ “Brazil”. Glad you got through it and look back on it with a light heart.
LOL your trip to Belarus sounds like a blast! I love reading about your adventures – good luck with the rest of your trip!
Great post, Chris. Reading this story is like reading about someone embarking to solve a really super-duper 5-star-difficulty-rated puzzle. And seeing the puzzle put together is so satisfying to read about. After all, life is often about over-coming obstacles. And so it’s strangely empowering to read of your puzzle-solving. Thank you.
This was a great read. Really entertaining.
Like you said, those of us privileged to hold a passport from a “rich country” often take it for granted we can go where we wish and visa’s aren’t usually a problem. If you hold a passport from a developing nation (like my wife), the “easy” countries *are* the hard ones. We’re no strangers to immigration red-tape. They can be very cynical at times.
Having lived in the USSR a year doing dissertation research, your hilarious account of Belarusan visa bureaucracy brought back fond memories of accidentally overstaying my visa for Moscow (Belarus used to be part of the USSR). Back then, you needed visas to travel within the country as well as to enter it. I was based in Leningrad and had accidentally bought an incorrect train ticket. It was 11 pm, an hour before my visa expired. No more tickets available, of course. As the clock ticked toward midnight, the jolly Moscow train station staff finally told me I’d better phone the American Embassy before my being in Moscow illegally caused an international incident. I stayed overnight with Embassy staff, who did what they needed to get me on the train back to Leningrad the next morning. As with your experience, the Russian station staff were fun – bureaucratic demands were perfectly normal, so you might as well enjoy this American and her problem.
So what you’re saying is…we should all book a trip to Belarus, right?
Great reading. Truly enjoyed your story. I guess you’ve got really unlucky with your Belarusian adventure and it is a pity you didn’t find anyone to talk to in Minsk. Although, i am glad you find Belarusians friendly and generally nice. BTW, they published your story on one of the national daily news web-pages and asked an official to comment on it.
I think you should come over again 🙂
We`ve published an article with official MIA comment on case with Chris`s visa in Belarus.
They assume he might’ve been “fundamentally unlucky.” 🙂
But note that if visa is made beforehand through Belarusian embassy in US not in the airport it`s three times cheaper – $140. See you in Belarus, guys!
I’m from Belarus,sorry for that accident, we can’t change the situation and you are not the only foreigner that faced so many problems trying to visit our country.but we are really nice and wish to converse with you.I hope that everything will change some day
What an excellent report on your trip to Belarus! I am actually a citizen of Belarus and I live there, so I definitely feel your pain my friend! All of your predicaments are merely peanuts compared to what it’s like to actually LIVE here… The MFA’s comment about you being “fundamentally unlucky” it just a bunch of horsecrap. Being a well-traveled person you are probably aware of the fact that the rhetoric of the Belarusian government is very similar to that of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, so don’t expect too much intellegent feedback on your situation on the part of the MFA. And I loved your comment on the taxi driver’s love for Phil Collins. LOL.
I live in Belarus. Sorry for bad English. Your article is wonderful. I love Belarus, but i have to confess it’s truth. If you have any questions about our country you will ask them.
Hello from Belarus! Welcome to Belarus!
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