Cruising to South America? Brazilian immigration authorities will refuse entry to anyone not possessing a valid visa which are nearly impossible to get.
While Turkey sells visas at the local airports upon arrival, and Russia will drop visa requirements if you book a ship's shore excursion, before you can even sail into a Brazilian cruise port as a passenger, Brazil requires everyone onboard to have a Brazilian visa.
The only way to obtain these visas is to submit an application to the regional Brazilian Consulate for the state in which you live. You can apply personally or use a "visa service," but the problem, either way, is that visas are getting harder and harder to obtain, and in some regions have become all but impossible.
The rules change on an ad hoc basis without logic or warning. The Los Angeles Brazilian Consulate used to issue 120 visas per day, but they cut that back to 30 per day in September - citing a backlog of requests. Right now they are limiting the number of new applications to 10 per day from all visa processing agencies combined. Plus they now have a limit of three appearances per week per representative.
Following the lead of Los Angeles, San Francisco also just dropped the number of applications they will accept to 42 per day starting November 2, 2009. Any one company can submit up to 20 applications per day, but the daily total allowance from all sources is 42. The doors open at 6:00 AM and there are no appointments made, it is first come first serve.
This is a real problem for residents of California, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. It is now virtually impossible for those states' residents to get a Brazilian visa from their regional Consulates, and it is absolutely against the rules for a resident of one region to apply for a visa at another consulate.
The cost has become prohibitive. Before the limits were in place you could expect to pay the consulate's $150 visa fee and $300 or more to the "visa service" to act as your personal representative. These fees are all "per person," and you must add two-way shipping fees to send them your passports and return them with the visa stamp. Today, even if you decide to try this route there is no guarantee your visa request will be considered in time.
Your window of opportunity for getting these visas is strictly limited. All Brazilian visas, regardless of the length of validity, must initially be used within 90 days of the issuance date or will no longer be valid. The catch is that you cannot get a visa without showing your cruise and air tickets to the Consulate, but one would be somewhat crazy to buy these cruise and air tickets with the level of uncertainty about getting a visa - even if you don't mind the cost.
The result is that cruises around South America have become theoretically impossible for a large segment of Americans, and it is just getting worse. 2600 people are currently trying to book the Star Princess scheduled to circumnavigate South America starting in February, but many of these people will not be able to get Brazilian visas, and without one they will not be allowed aboard the ship - as long as there are Brazilian ports on the itinerary.
Any ship with passengers not holding Brazil visas is prohibited from docking in any Brazilian port. If this were just one port it wouldn't be a big deal, but it takes almost a week of hugging the coast of eastern South America to get around Brazil - the fifth largest nation in the world. Suffice it to say that if it becomes impossible for a vast number of US citizens to get Brazilian visas, with Rio being one of the main attractions in the entire continent, there is hardly any reason for cruise lines to even book cruises to Eastern South America.
So, why would a nation like Brazil stop high-spending tourists from entering? Good question! Would you believe it is more a matter of principle than economics? Brazil's policy is simple payback for the treatment Brazilian citizens get from U.S. Embassies. A Brazilian applying for an American visa has to pay a $130 application fee. He must apply in person and have proof of citizenship and good medical records (if requested). Brazil is not on the "Visa Waver Program" for the U.S. that most of the European nations enjoy. So, basically, we have the same strict entry requirements for Brazilians as they have for us.
CruiseMates has often warned people about Brazilian visas being mandatory, but last winter, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival sent two megaships around the coast of South America to re-deploy them full time in California. My travel agent, Nancy Bogert, says that for both cruise lines many passengers missed the warnings that were sent out by the cruise lines and these people were not allowed to board the ships at all.
Many passengers, instead of joining these ships on embarkation day, had to go to the Miami Brazilian Consulate to get visas. For Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas 63 were able to meet the ship in St. Martin, but 72 had to wait until the ship reached Barbados. Those who were not able to get a visa had to wait until the ship was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, more than two weeks later and by then into the second segment of the three-part circumnavigation.
Carnival had about 120 people who had to apply for the visa on embarkation day and most these people ended up flying to Barbados, about 60 miles from the northern coast of Venezuela, to board the ship there.
But now the problem is far worse. What started in Los Angeles has now spread to San Francisco and the same problem could soon spread to other Brazilian Consulates.
Basically, there is no way around it except to fly to your consulate and show up at 6:00 AM every morning to see if you might get a spot. But with competition for these visas getting so tight, it could take months before your application is even accepted.
By the way - we want to warn you about one more thing. We have seen visa services online that will promise they can get you a Brazilian visa for just $55. But they do not mention any of the current restrictions or the possibility you will never actually get your visa. They may be reputable companies, but their credit card forms that will charge you about $300 with no guarantees. Reputable visa services are listed on the Brazilian Consulate web sites for your region. You should call them before you even consider sending any money or documentation at all.