DETROIT - What do Brazil, China, and India have in common?

All require American travelers to get a visa. And they are not the only countries.

"A lot of people don't know visas exist, or they think U.S. citizens don't need one," says Diane Kakoz, manager of B&K Express in Southfield, Mich., a passport-visa expediting service. "A lot of people going to Brazil get to the airport there and get sent back."

A visa is a travel document some nations require in addition to a passport. Getting a visa usually costs $80 to $140, plus processing fees.

That expense can be a rude shock to individual travelers on a budget. But on a group trip, it is usually an invisible cost folded into the tour price.

"When we went to Vietnam in 2009, Vietnam Battlefield Tours out of San Antonio took care of the visas, and we didn't have a single problem," says Don Alsbro, who runs tours for Michigan veterans. "VBT just put it into the price of the tour."

The most common visas that Kakoz obtains are for China, India, and Brazil. She does a lot of India visas because so many people in the Detroit area have family there. She does frequent business-travel visas to Brazil and China. Other common visas sought are for Vietnam, Nigeria, and Russia.

While some visas take weeks to process, Cambodia and Australia offer visas online with near-immediate approval. Some nations let tourists get a visa when they arrive. Others, such as Venezuela, accept tourist cards instead, handed out on arriving flights.

Luckily, U.S. tourists can blithely traipse around most of the world with just their passports. In fact, Americans can travel to 159 nations without a visa. That makes us among the freest travelers in the world.

The people least free to travel without a visa? Afghans.

The reason some nations' travelers need visas and others don't is simple. Richer countries tend to make people from poor or war-torn countries get visas as an extra step to make sure that they return where they came from. Poor countries are more likely to admit people from rich countries without visas.

Sometimes, it's political. Experts view Brazil's visa requirement and hefty fee ($140) for Americans as a retaliation for stringent visa requirements and an identical fee that Brazilian tourists must pay to visit the U.S.

Whatever the requirements, the biggest mistake that visa seekers make, experts say, is procrastinating.

"Everybody waits until the last minute and then wastes money to get a rush visa," says Abraham Jacobi, consular liaison at Perry International in Chicago, which expedites travel documents. Applying one month ahead is good. Wait until the week you're leaving, and you'll likely pay a rush fee of up to $200.

Part of the problem is that unless you have a tour operator tell you that a visa is needed, you may not even know. Tourists, business travelers, students or those who plan to work need specific visas and should check ahead for the rules. To find out whether you need a visa, find a country at www.travel.state.gov and view "entry and exit requirements."

The process can be convoluted. Among visa exceptions and quirks are:

Russia issues visas only for exact dates. Travelers who don't depart by the last date on their visas can face weeks of delay getting out of the country.

Cruise passengers stopping in Brazil need visas or they can't get off the ship. Brazil charges $140 for a visa, and it must be obtained ahead of time, as many a disappointed cruise passenger has discovered too late.

U.S. residents who are noncitizens or green-card holders need visas based on the passport they hold. For instance, U.S. citizens don't need a visa to the United Arab Emirates, but Canadian citizens - even if they hold a U.S. green card - do.

Even countries that offer visas upon arrival have specific requirements. For instance, Laos charges $35 and will take U.S. dollars but requires two passport-sized photos.

Although it seems as though a passport would be valid until its expiration date, more countries are requiring that the passport be valid for at least six months beyond your planned return date. And when you need a visa, you will need at least one blank page in your passport so the visa can be attached, Jacobi says.

It may all sound complex, but it is nothing compared to the hoops foreigners have to jump through to get U.S. tourist or study visas. That process involves mountains of documentation and even personal interviews.

And it doesn't take days, Jacobi says: "It can take months or even years."

Freedom to Travel the World

These nations rank best in the number of countries their citizens can visit without a visa:

1. United Kingdom,

166 countries

2. Denmark, 164

3. Sweden, 163

4. Finland and Luxembourg,162

6. France, Germany, Italy,

the Netherlands, 161

10. Belgium, Japan, Spain, 160

13. United States, Ireland, Norway, 159

These nations rank worst in the number of countries their citizens can visit without a visa:

1. Afghanistan,

26 countries

2. Lebanon, 32

3. Iran, 34

4. Pakistan, 36

5. China and Nepal, 38

7. Vietnam and Egypt, 43

9. India, 50

Requirements for a Visa

Passport

Completed application

Passport-size photos

Payment for the visa and the expeditor processing fee.

In some cases, a letter from your sponsor or trip provider, plus a contact in-country.

In some cases, a copy of your airline ticket, cruise ticket, or itinerary.

In some cases, a driver's license, birth certificate, or bank statement.

What Is an Expeditor?

Many tour operators obtain visas for their clients. But when you need to do it yourself, I recommend hiring a visa expeditor to do the legwork for you.

An expeditor tells you what documents you need, what fees to pay, and hand-delivers the documents to a consulate for processing. It then gets the visa and documents back to you.

Expeditors charge a fee, commonly about $45 to $90, on top of the cost of the visa, but it's worth it. Groups can get discounts. They also are good at getting rush visas.

Some reputable visa expeditors include:

Travisa - A gigantic expeditor based in Washington; www.travisa.com, 1-800-766-0608.

VisaHQ - Washington, www.visahq.com, 1-800-345-6541.

- Ellen Creager

SOURCE: Henley & Partners Visa Restriction Index Global Ranking 2010EndText