StoriesMay 24, 2023


Freedom. Exploration. That fantastic adrenaline rush. That’s what travel feels like. Doesn’t it? 

Traveling across the world should feel like that and while once on the go, in another part of the world, it often does, the road to this other part of the world isn’t all that exciting for most people. I would know. I am one of them - in love with the world and all its imperfect magnificence. What I am not in love with is the red tape that precedes my travels. It is not fun to fill out applications, wait in lines outside embassies, get interviewed about your good standing in society, and show your bank statements and letters of invitation from friends (yes, the ones you had to very awkwardly ask for). It is while I was waiting for the response to my visa application to Australia last year (the one for which I had paid a non-refundable application fee) that it hit me: man, this is what it feels like to be colonized.  


The visa application process is the perfect example of neocolonialism at work: it is the more traditionally “developed” countries (primarily white) trying to determine whether those from lesser developed countries deserve to visit their countries. All of this, while asking applicants to pay a sum of money they cannot get back even if the application is rejected. And the applicants sometimes get a huge “rejected” stamp on their passports - just to ensure that they are stripped of the freedom to see the world or get access to opportunities their citizens take for granted.

The whole process feels blatantly exploitative. It just so happens that nobody in the West seems to talk about it. It may be arrogance, ignorance, or perhaps just a lack of interest. 


The core rationale behind visas is quite sound: countries want to ensure that aliens do not overstay their welcome and become a financial strain on the country in the process. This is a fair expectation to have and one everybody would agree on. The reason this gets murky is that different norms that apply to different nationals.

Back when I lived in Berlin in 2018, I used to joke with my friends that I could never do one of those classic scenes from a romantic comedy - the one where the protagonist jumps on a plane on a whim and flies across the world to tell their beloved how much they love them. I would instead have to tell my beloved to wait for one to six months until I heard back on my visa decision before I jumped on that plane. And in the case of an American visa as it stands at the time of writing this article, about two years. 

So why is it that somebody born in the U.S. or Europe ends up having a much easier time than somebody like me with my Indian passport when it comes to exploring the world? 

For this, we need to understand the power of different passports. The Passport Index is an interactive AI tool that compares and ranks the passports of the world. The power of a passport is based on freedom of movement open to holders of particular passports. It also takes into account the number of countries citizens with different passports can visit with a visa on arrival. There is also something known as the “welcoming score” - which ranks countries based on how welcoming they are to citizens of other countries i.e. their own visa policies. 

The country with the most powerful passport in the world is the United Arab Emirates. It is followed closely by eleven countries in the second spot, some of which are Sweden, Germany, South Korea, and Switzerland. This is followed by nine countries in the third spot, some of which are the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Denmark. 

The common factor here stands out: wealth. All the countries here (with the exception of the UAE) are also democratic. The UAE appears to be the only exception. However, its massive wealth and oil reserves have led to its passport being the strongest in the world. 

Some of the weakest passports in the world are: Afghanistan (#96), Syria (#95), and Iraq (#94). Many African countries are also ranked very low. China has a rank of #59 and India of #72. 

It is clear that factors such as how rich a country is, how progressive it is, and the country’s political stability all impact the ranking.

Just to put the rankings into perspective, nationals from the UAE can visit 123 countries without a visa and have visa-on-arrival access to 58 more countries. Just about a three-hour flight away is Afghanistan. Nationals of Afghanistan can visit only 5 countries without a visa and have visa-on-arrival to 34 countries. They need to apply for a visa (which oftentimes is a strenuous and stressful process) to 159 countries. It is no wonder one hardly bumps into any Afghans. Loud Americans and laddy Brits on the other hand? You’re sure to find them everywhere. 

What about the “welcoming score” though? As it turns out, countries with the most powerful passports are often the least welcoming ones i.e. they have the strictest laws for allowing foreigners. UAE stands at #52, the US at #69, and the UK at #41, just to name a few. Some of the most welcoming countries in the world, on the other hand, are South Sudan, Nigeria (both with the 88th most powerful passport), Bolivia (57th most powerful passport), and Malawi (64th most powerful passport). 


Behind the numbers stated above are real people holding these passports - people who want to see the world, have access to opportunities, and aspire to become true global citizens. 

Having a weak passport comes with a hefty fine. For many, it is not possible to jump on a plane and embrace wanderlust. It requires months of preparation, filling out forms, booking appointments with embassies for visa interviews, paying application fees, having a substantial amount of money in the bank account as proof, and feeling a sense of overwhelming stress. All of this, and it still doesn’t guarantee the visa being approved. 

Overall, the whole process makes one feel like a second-class citizen. While the core reasoning behind the process may be valid, the way it is being handled is far from perfect. It will be interesting to see the changes in visa norms in the next few years given the changing economic status and values of various countries.

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