The world is more accessible to travelers than it's ever been. In the past few years, countries across the globe have made strides to ease travel across borders. For its part, the United States has introduced Global Entry kiosks at participating airports, allowing approved, low-risk travelers the ability to scan their passports and their fingerprints, as well as make customs declarations, at a machine rather than with a customs officer. And business and leisure travelers hailing from 38 countries -- the most recent being Chile -- can enter the U.S. without a visa (if their stay is 90 days or less) thanks to the Visa Waiver Program.
But America isn't the only nation making changes. Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, recently granted British citizens a visa-free entry into his country through July 15, 2015 (stays cannot exceed 15 days). Meanwhile, the European Union allows U.S. citizens with valid passports to stay in the 26 Schengen area countries for up to three months without obtaining a visa. Citizens of EU countries or EU applicant countries, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, are also granted visa-free travel within the Schengen region.
Why the big push to ease visa requirements? According to a report compiled by the World Tourism Organization, "Visa policies are among the most important governmental formalities influencing international tourism." And it's easy to see why. A visa serves several purposes for countries -- it's a moneymaker, it puts limits on immigration, travelers' activities and the duration of their stays, and it's a national security measure. But despite these justifications, the UNWTO reports that most travelers find visas expensive in both money -- many traditional visas cost more than $100 -- and time. "If the cost of obtaining a visa ... exceeds a threshold, potential travelers are simply deterred from making a particular journey or choose an alternative destination with less hassle," the UNWTO report states.
Many countries have taken heed of the traveler's plight and simplified their visa processes. Below is a list of countries that have recently updated their visa requirements -- see how those updates affect you.
Americans wanting to travel to Australia for business or leisure who have a valid passport at the time of entry can apply for an eVisa, or what the government calls an Electronic Travel Authority. Unlike the visa process of other countries, Aussieland's eVisa offers a few key advantages: It can be completed on a computer (rather than in an embassy), the process can be completed within 24 hours and costs roughly $19 USD -- much cheaper than the traditional tourist visa, which costs around $125 USD. This eVisa grants you unlimited visits across one calendar year for up to three months at a time, so you won't have to re-up if you're a frequent traveler to Sydney, Melbourne or any of the country's other top vacation spots.
If you want to spend a long layover in Beijing or Shanghai, you might be interested in China's 72-hour Transit Visa Exemption. The U.S. is one of 45 countries whose citizens are able to apply for this particular kind of visa-free travel. You must have a passport valid up to six months after your departure date, as well as a visa and plane ticket for the next country you'll be visiting. To take advantage of this program, you need to request the exemption through your airline carrier before your travel date. The airline will then apply on behalf of its U.S. passenger to the border control authorities for this short-but-sweet entry into the People's Republic of China.
United Arab Emirates
Dubai, the City of Gold, is one of the most-visited places in the world. While it's really the shopping, skiing and beach bumming that make it an alluring destination, the easy visa-on-arrival process surely contributes to the UAE's popularity. All you need to visit Dubai, Abu Dhabi or any other destination in the United Arab Emirates is a passport valid for six months beyond your visit and a confirmed airline ticket home or onward to another country. Upon your arrival in the UAE, you'll receive a visa (no fee required) that permits you to stay in the country for a one-month stay.
See: How to Protect Your Identity When You Travel
Tourists flock to this pocket in south-central Africa for walking safaris, national parks and beautiful waterfalls, including the massive Victoria Falls. Thanks to Zambia's visa-on-arrival policy, leisure globe-trotters from the U.S. with passports valid for six months beyond their visit will find traveling here a cinch. (Business travel requires a few more steps.) After filling out a visa application at the airport, simply swipe your credit card at one of the Point of Sale terminals at the Lusaka, Livingstone or Ndola airports to pay the $50 USD fee.
A complicated or pricey tourist visa won't cast a pall on honeymoon preparations to St. Lucia: This Caribbean paradise doesn't require American citizens to obtain one. If you have a passport with at least six months of validity beyond your intended stay, you can remain in these tropics for up to 42 days. However, you should keep in mind that if you have a stopover in a different country on your way to St. Lucia, it might be necessary to purchase a separate transit visa.
Within the past few years, the Cayman Islands and its top sites like Seven Mile Beach and Stingray City have become more easily accessible to a host of travelers, including Americans. That's because the cluster of three Caribbean islands only requires a passport and proof of a return flight (or onward journey). And in the Caymans, you can mingle with the beach bums and sea critters for up to six months without a visa.
Nicaragua's natural charms lure a variety of travelers: Adventure-seekers can hike (or even board) down its volcanoes. Meanwhile, beaches like San Juan del Sur and historic cities like León and Granada appeal to sun-worshippers and history buffs. No matter the reason for visiting, all travelers can experience Nicaragua for up to 90 days without a visa. All you'll need is a passport and proof of a return or onward flight.
South Asia's Sri Lanka is a relatively small island in the Indian Ocean, but with eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and more than 800 miles of beaches, it's got a lot to offer tourists. Thanks to changes made to entry requirements in 2012, it's even easier to take advantage of these Sri Lankan charms since the country allows Americans to purchase an eVisa, or an Electronic Travel Authorization. After filling out this online form and paying the $30 USD fee, you can travel to Sri Lanka with ease knowing that your 30-day eVisa will be waiting for you at the port of entry.
-- Emily H. Bratcher