Can One Fly to Any Country?

My son was wondering can you simply get up and fly to any country? I know the State Department posts warnings of going to certain countries, but does anything actually stop you? OK, one is limited by where the commercial airlines will fly. And, showing your passport after landing in a hostile country may bring one trouble. But, let say one wanted to fly to China or Australia.* Do you need special permission to enter? How does one find out such details before one flies?

*I once heard from a friend Australia requires a visa even for visitors. How does one find this out in the first place? And, how does one find the steps one must complete to apply?


If you are a US passport holder (or a variety of other wealthy 1st world country passport holder) there are many countries you can just fly to and they’ll let you in with nothing more than scanning/stamping your passport.

There are a number of other countries that require some kind of visa paperwork/payment that can be done at the border.

There are still other countries where you must apply for and be granted a visa before traveling.

You generally find out approximately what the rules are by checking with the State department of your country and the country you’d like to visit, but the rules on the ground are often complicated and arbitrary and don’t totally match what you’d expect.

These days, a lot of countries that you could previously just enter now also require proof of vaccines. There are other countries (generally in S. America, Africa, or Asia) that have long required other vaccination proof. Yellow Fever is one of the common ones.

It’s all online. Each country and our State Department has websites with information and instructions.

Things do change. The last time I went to Brasil I needed to get a visa first. Citizens of the U.S. no longer have to.

When you travel overseas, you should always assume that you will need some kind of visa (eg tourist or business travel visa) - this way you are reminded to look up the rules before you travel. Every country is different. Some may allow you to simply sign a visa waiver form when you’re on the plane, others will require you to get a visa in advance, and sometimes pay an entry fee. Some visas are easy to get online and can be got almost instantly, others may take time or even require you to queue up at the embassy of the country you want to visit.

Every country has a website giving you details of what you need to do, as will your own State department. These details also now include all the schenanigans you need to know about covid - such as vaccination certificates, pre and post flight tests and passenger locator forms - again, every country has their own rules about this, and changes them on a whim. For example when I recently traveled from the UK to Greece, I didn’t need a visa, but I did need a vaccination certificate and a filled in passenger locator form to enter Greece. Returning to the UK, I had to do a rapid antigen test 48 in advance of travel, fill in a passenger locator form, show a vaccine certificate, and do a PCR test 48 hours after I landed (and register the results). Travel has got complicated.

Australia is one of a great many countries that welcome visitors but put certain restrictions on them. If you Google “Australia travel requirements” (or similar) you’ll find detailed explanations from the Australia government as to what these are and just what you need to do to comply.

If you were to skip this obvious step and simply show up at the airport for a flight you’d booked, you’d almost certainly be denied boarding - probably without a refund: The standard arrangement of countries with airlines is that if they bring a would-be visitor who doesn’t meet requirements (passport / visa / vaccinations / etc.) they must immediately carry said visitor out of the country, at their expense. This gives them strong incentive to make sure you are good to go before you board.

Timatic is the gold standard for verifying what you need to enter any country. It is run by IATA, the International Air Transport Association. Many airlines have licensed it and make it available to the public, like United:

International travel documents - United Airlines

You can enter dates, where you are flying from and to, transfer airports, and nationality and it will tell you what documents are required.

Requirements can be very simple or complicated- for example, even though a country allows visits for 6 months for people holding your passport, you may need to have both your flight out and your visa for the next country you’re visiting arranged.

When you check in for the flight, they’ll check, or you’re not getting on the flight.

I got stuck with that one once- UK citizen, in Australia; plan was to go to NZ for a month, then back to Oz for a festival before flying home. Unfortunately, my return flight was outside the time covered by my original visa (a working holiday one, valid for a year).

Although I could get an Australian holiday visa in NZ or the UK , I couldn’t get a visa to re-enter Australia while still in Australia. I had to buy a ticket back to the UK from NZ to be allowed on the plane -which I then cancelled as soon as I got to NZ and got my Australian visa, which took all of 5 minutes online.

Showed up 8 hours early, and made the flight on final call…

Somewhat related, there is a group that ranks countries based on how powerful their passports are, which typically means how many other countries can be visited without a visa.

Most countries like to have some idea of who is currently within their borders, and also likes to ensure that some unwelcome ones are not. Visas are often how they manage this. It minimally gets all the paperwork for recording what is happening out of the way early. If you are a US citizen and you want to come and visit Australia you can get your visa on-line. But we do like you to have done so.

At the other extreme there are certainly countries where if you turned up on a plane you would quite unwelcome. You need an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia (unless you are performing the Hajj, in which case there is a special visa, which only lets you perform the pilgrimage). So you can’t even apply to visit.

Travel within most of the EU is trivial. 26 countries are unified into the Schengen Area. Mostly you can breeze through any border control. Getting in and out of the area and you are back to normal border controls. However there is a single visa needed for the entire group, which visitors get from the country they first enter. How hard it is to get the visa depnds upon where are comping from.

In the middle there are a huge number of countries that require you to get a visa in your passport before you start your journey, and you have to get the visa from their local embassy or consulate. That can mean sending your passport away, sometimes for a significant amount of time, which can really screw around with your travel. Especially for business. The more obscure and poor the country you want to visit, usually the worse it gets. But their visas are usually the most ornate and embellished.

Without checking it, I’d be surprised if you could fly to the Vatican or San Marino.

I haven’t been but the official Visit Saudi website seems to contradict you, at least for citizens of certain countries.

You need an invitation from a resident to apply for a visa to visit Russia. In reality getting this is trivial as your hotel or rental provider will do the appropriate paperwork (known as a visit support letter) to comply with this request. Fact is, most countries have tourism and business reasons for attracting visitors, so have mechanisms for allowing nice people from friendly countries - and even not so friendly countries - to come in.

They do seem to have been loosening up. My experience with the issues is quite some time ago.

Generally speaking, the airline will want to verify that you actually have a valid visa for your destination country. So if you bought a ticket to China, when you go to check in for your flight you’ll be required to either enter your visa information on their website, or show it to an airline employee at the airport. If you can’t show you have permission to enter China, I suspect the airline will cancel your ticket.

I don’t know if there’s any rule that says the airline has to enforce visa requirements that way, but they do because if you just show up in China and aren’t allowed in, the airline has to foot the bill to send you back home. And I am guessing by bringing you there the airline would have possibly broken Chinese law, too.

Can we get back to the OP. Are there countries with no commercial airports?

Yes, if you count really tiny city-states like the above mentioned Vatican City and San Marino. Here’s a wiki list.

Aside from those, everywhere - even war torn countries like Syria - have commercial airports. You might need to make multiple connecting flights to find an airline which actually goes there, but someone will, at some point in time, unless the airport is actively under siege.

It amazes me sometimes how commercial travel seems to be able to avoid political skirmishes. When I was looking for a country to visit for a beach holiday after a week in Israel, I was amazed by the ease and frequency of low cost flights to Turkey. Turns out Turkey is very popular with Israeli holiday makers, who knew?

Are there any countries in which a US passport is an automatic No Entry? North Korea comes to mind.

US Citizens have traveled to North Korea on a US passport, so that’s not true.

North Korea is what I came here to say. I’d be very surprised if an American were able to enter North Korea or Iran without something illegal going on.

(This is just my wild-assed guess, though.)

A while back, I had heard this interview, on NPR for the Really rich :

“ HARRINGTON: So this wealth manager and her boss had been summoned to a country outside of Europe by a client who was sending a private plane for them. She showed up at the Zurich airport with her boss waiting for this plane. And she discovered that she’d left her passport back home in a different purse. And she said to her boss, I’ve got to go home and get my passport because we’re leaving Europe. And he said don’t worry about it. And she said again, no, they’re going to check my passport. They won’t let me leave Switzerland, much less enter another country. I’ve got to go home. And he said, no, really, don’t worry about it.

So she didn’t say anything further, figuring, you know, it would be his problem if she got refused the right to leave. Sure enough, the private plane pulls up. They get on it. Nobody checks a passport. It lands in this other country outside Europe. Nobody checks a passport. They get into the private car sent by the client. They’re taken to the client’s home. They have their meeting. Private car takes them back to the private plane. Private plane flies them back to Switzerland. They get off the plane and go home. At no point has anyone encountered passport control or a customs agent.

And this wealth manager’s comment was the lives of the richest people in the world are so different from those of the rest of us, it’s almost literally unimaginable. National borders are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. “

Funny story. I was traveling to Brazil in the 90s on business. My company had a service to book flights and hotels. I got my tickets, headed to the airport, boarded the plane, and 15 hours later landed in Sao Paulo. I stepped off the plane and am whisked away and taken to a small windowless room with no explanation.

A representative from American Airlines tells me I am there illegally since I don’t have a visa. The rep is extremely upset and agitated that I am there. I explained that someone else made the arrangements and that when they looked at my passport when I checked in nobody mentioned anything to me. (Turns out the airline could be fined $10,000 for letting me on that plane.) Since I hadn’t reached immigration I wasn’t technically in the country, so they booked the next flight out to Uraguay. Once there I had to go to the Brazilian embassy and apply for a visa. It took two days, but I was eventually allowed to return to Brazil, this time with a legal visa. From that point on I always checked to see if a visa is required for any of my international travel. Generally, it’s not required, but you never know and it can change over time.

I was once in Singapore on business and had to make an unplanned stop in Australia for a meeting on my way home. From Singapore, I just filled out a form, faxed it to Sydney, and got the visa instantly. Every country does things differently and it’s your job to follow all of the rules.