IF COUNTRIES COULD all just get along, I would be almost $700 richer. That $700 I would promptly spend on visiting one of my last remaining countries in South America, Paraguay.
But as it stands, I don’t have that $700, because I spent it on visas and reciprocity fees, and visiting Paraguay will set me back yet another visa fee. If I go I will have paid the reciprocity or visa fees for every country in South America that charges them to US passport holders.
To be clear: reciprocity is not a visa. It involves passports and cash (or credit card) but no photos, no paperwork, just cold hard cash at the airport. Visas are handled usually through the consulate, though in some but not all cases, they can be obtained at the border. There you have to hand over your color glossy photo of your beautiful self and do some seriously small writing in undersized boxes, and possibly provide other information such as hotel reservations, vaccinations, proof of solvency, etc.
Below is every country in South America that charges visa or reciprocity to US-passport holders. In the cases of reciprocity, clever travel options (overland, lesser airports) may mean you can avoid them. It is also theoretically (and practically) possible to walk past immigration without showing your passport, like on the bridge from Foz de Iguazu, Brazil, over the Puente de la Amistad which spans the Paraná River into Paraguay, a relatively uncontrolled border. But I cannot recommend this.
South American visas and reciprocity fees
Chile, oh beautiful Chile with your skiing in the winter and long Patagonian hikes in summer, and your $140 reciprocity fee charged to Americans at SCL airport. Australians and Canadians will be set back $61, and $132, respectively, and Albanians and Mexican nationals also have to pay. This reciprocity fee is charged only at the SCL in Santiago, and is good for the life of your passport. If you’re flying into, say, Arica in the north, Punta Arenas in the south, or even Easter Island via Lima or Papeete, the reciprocity fee is not charged. You can also come in overland (or by boat), and the fee is not charged. In summary: Chile= $140.
Argentina, (disputed) home of the tango, land of gauchos, and another $140 reciprocity fee for Americans. Despite signs in the airport that indicate “Mercosur residents,” I learned the hard way that unless you hold multiple passports, Americans, Australians and Canadians will get dinged, in Argentina, residency in Mercosur countries notwithstanding. Aussies pay $100, and like Americans, the reciprocity fee is good for ten years (not the life of your passport). Canadians pay only $70, but their reciprocity fee is good for only a single entry. This fee is collected at both Buenos Aires airports, but no where else for now. Short story: Argentina= $140.
Brazil was high on my list. I wanted to eat açaí on the beach, and see good friends in Sao Paulo. I did not want to pay $140 in visa fees to do it, but barring running afoul of the law in Brazil, I had no choice. Visas must be obtained at the consulate with the usual rigamarole, paperwork, passport-sized photo and are good for five years. Sadly, my Brazilian visa is now lapsed, so I’ll have to get it again if I want to go again (and of course I do). Point: Brazil= $140
Bolivia, with altiplano, jungle and more kinds of potatoes than there are colors of M and Ms and skittles combined, wanted me to have a visa, too. This I dutifully applied for in Santiago, proof of yellow fever vaccination, paperwork, hotel reservations, and a letter explaining my plans in Bolivia handed over, along with the receipt showing I’d deposited the $140 into the consulate bank account. If you get your visa at the border, some of these requirements are more flexible, such as the letter with your plans, and the hotel reservation, but you don’t want to mess around with a yellow fever vax at the border. Sumando: Bolivia: $140
Suriname, the hugely multicultural yet geographically-small country presented the biggest problem for me, since Suriname has no diplomatic relations with Chile, where I live. I could have paid a service to ferry my passport hither and yon, but in the end, it seemed simplest, and safest (though not cheapest) to go to Trinidad, where for $110 ($100 plus a $10 processing fee charged by the consulate), I was given this hand-written beauty in my clunker of a passport. For a single entry, US citizens can get a tourist card at a Surinamese embassy ahead of time for $25, as can of many other countries. Dutch citizens flying into Paramaribo from the Netherlands can buy a tourist card at the airport. Suriname full access: $100. (Frozen coffee drink consumed while waiting, $4.)
Paraguay, oh Paraguay, where I will drink tereré (cold mate, an herbal drink) and visit the former missions, will be the last in my expensive fill-in-the-passport for South America visa game. I’ll get to choose between a $65 one-time visa, and $100 for multiple entries. It’s only good for 90 days, so it will depend on how I plan on using it (overland, crossing in and out of Argentina/Brazil/Bolivia, or just busing/flying in and out). Paraguay permission: $65/$100. For more information on taking this trip from Buenos Aires, see this piece.
I really do wish that countries could all just play well together, you let my people in, I let your people in, without all these visas and fees. Countries are clearly charging more than it costs them to process the paperwork, and my country of birth (the US) is no exception. And as more than one person on travel forums I visit has pointed out, the citizens always come up short. Country A charges citizens of Country B reciprocity and visa fees in part (they say) to compensate for monies their citizens pay to visit (or apply for a visa for) in Country A. But the money I paid to Argentina (for example) as reciprocity because the US charges Argentines to apply for a visa will never end up in the pocket of an Argentine kid angling to meet Mickey Mouse.
At least visas make our passports pretty.