Countries That Are Screwing Over Americans (Because We Screwed Them Over First)

So you have your passport. If you’re American, you have the benefit of being able to travel to a number of countries without a visa.* Congrats! Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly expensive to be a US passport holder while traveling abroad. Wait, what?

Happy in Santiago, Chile after paying only 1 reciprocity fee.

Happy in Santiago, Chile after paying only 1 reciprocity fee.

Why Are They Charging Americans?

The reality is that many non-US citizens face extreme difficulties when traveling to America. Aside from an in-person interview at their “local” US embassy (which may be hundreds of miles away), visitors to the US may have to pay large visa fees. In response to this charge, many South American countries have introduced “reciprocity fees” to stick it to US citizens for the decisions made by the US government. It’s payback at the highest, political level. The trouble is, I’m not sure how much it’s really working.

Many of these reciprocity fees are a direct one to one match with what a citizen of that country would pay to enter the USA. This fee is currently $160, though it can vary quite a bit. Procedures vary quite a bit for paying these fees. For example, let’s look at our recent trip to South America.

A Family Trip to South America

Argentina: In a new and surprising development, American visitors to Argentina now face a reciprocity fee. You must pay your reciprocity fee online before arriving into Argentina. The fee is $160 – you MUST present your receipt upon entering the country or you could be turned away. No matter where you try to enter Argentina (via air, land or even cruise ship), you’ll have to pay this fee. The receipt is valid for 10 years.

Be sure to pay the Argentinian reciprocity fee before your trip!

Be sure to pay the Argentinian reciprocity fee before your trip!

Chile: Upon arrival into Santiago’s airport, visitors entering on a US passport must stop at a separate counter to pay the fee in cash or credit card. The fee is $160 and is valid for the life of your passport. There are a handful of other countries whose citizens are also subject to this fee (Canada, Mexico, Australia, Albania), though the cost is lower. You must show your receipt to enter the country. As an aside, this fee may be dropped in a few months, although it was certainly in effect when we traveled to Chile in October 2013.

Our trip last year included both Argentina and Chile, plus a side trip to glorious Uruguay (where there is no reciprocity fee!). Had all three of us been US citizens exclusively (only I am), we would have paid $960 in reciprocity fees. Everyone must pay the fee, even a baby who didn’t even have a seat on the plane! Suddenly our trip would not be affordable. We do a fantastic job getting cheap or free airfare by using points and use AirBnb for accommodations. But adding an additional $960 in fees would have sent us to another destination.

Uruguay is a great family destination with no reciprocity fees for Americans.

Uruguay is a great family destination with no reciprocity fees for Americans.

We feel as though many families would also choose to travel to another destination rather than pay the extra nearly $1,000 to visit Chile and Argentina. By charging these fees, these countries are denying the country’s tourism infrastructure valuable American dollars.

A Growing Trend in South America

When we visited Iguazu Falls, Argentina in 2011, we did not pay any fees. But despite the possibility of Chile dropping its reciprocity fee in a few months, these fees keep being added in South America. Brazil requires Americans to obtain a visa prior to travel (a cost of $140), which is basically a disguised reciprocity fee. When I showed up at my visa appointment in NYC with the proper paperwork, the representative wasn’t interested in anything except my payment. Bolivia also charges $140 in the form of a visa and even Paraguay makes you cough up $65 for a visa, unless of course you just sneak in.

What Should You Do?

These countries are great. South America is one of the best places to vacation and is a perfect family destination for many reasons! However, the fees can be steep. If you’re considering travel to any of these countries with a reciprocity fee, the best thing you can do is to weigh your options. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Consider the total cost of your stay. South America can be a cheap place. Food is very inexpensive and you can rent a two apartment in the city center for $50-100 per night. Can you do this in Europe? Probably not. So while the reciprocity fees may be steep, your trip may still be cheaper than a similar trip to a European destination. If you want to travel to Argentina, you can make the trip even cheaper by exchanging money on the blue market.
  2. Consider another destination in South America. If you aren’t set on a particular country, you could consider another destination within South America. Ecuador, Colombia and Peru are good destinations without reciprocity fees. Flights to these countries may also be cheaper because these destinations are better connected to the US. Travel time is also much shorter! Uruguay is also a great destination, although flights are hard to find and there is still a departure tax of $31 for departures via air.
  3. Use a Non-US Passport. A very small number of people can use their non-American passport. If you’re a dual citizen, now is the time to reap the benefits! My husband and daughter were able to travel to Chile, Argentina and Brazil without paying any fees by using their EU passports.
  4. (Mentally) Spread Your Costs Over Time. Many of these fees are valid for either the life of your passport or for 10 years. If you’re planning on visiting these destinations multiple times over the next decade or so, you should take this into account. Mentally, it may seem better to think of it as paying a $40 fee for entering Argentina for your next 4 trips versus $160 for a single trip 🙂

Bottom Line: These fees suck. It can be unfair that the US charges visitors so much just to travel to America, but it is only hurting these countries more to retaliate with reciprocity fees. The fees are hefty and add up quickly for a family. Stay informed during your trip planning process by visiting the US Department of State’s website. They have actually made it easy to use. Leading up to your trip, check laws periodically to ensure you are aware of updates. Good luck!

*Technically, the stamp in your passport is your “visa,” though we don’t usually call it that because it requires no fee and no advance planning.

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