Don’t we already have enough categories of privileges to debate? Why the need for a new one? Well, to start with as a travel-loving person, access to places is where I begin, right? How do I travel if the system is built to almost discourage me from stepping outside my country?
Passport privilege is the advantage of being able to access countries outside your home country with an ease that is not granted to everyone equally. The weightage given to passport makes them weaker or stronger. In 2020, Japanese citizens could access 191 countries Visa-free while Indian passport holders could access 58 countries Visa-free.
But there’s more to the numbers. Are these 58 countries Indian passport holders can access even accessible in the practical world? We’ll get there in a bit.
The Henley Passport Index
Henley passport index is a global ranking of passports based on the number of countries the holders can access without requiring a prior Visa.
According to this index, India ranks 82nd (but it doesn’t equate to 81 countries ahead of us because multiple countries can occupy the same rank) with visa free access to 58 destinations. In 2020, Japan was ranked at number 1 position on the index with visa free access to 191 countries followed by Singapore, South Korea, and Germany.
What the index fails to capture though is the practicality of visiting these ‘Visa-free’ destinations. To give you an example, of the 58 countries Indian nationals get visa-free access to, only about a dozen countries can be visited directly, the other destinations are so far off that one would need to take a connecting flight through a country that of course would require a transit visa on an Indian passport.
Transit visa is a visa needed to transit through a country, even if you don’t intend to leave the airport.
One additional thing is the Visa free access does not mean Visa free at all entry points. For example, an Indian national has Visa free access to Myanmar. However this holds true only at two international airports and not through land entry (a common route of entering a country for long term travellers).
Fun Fact: In 2017, Japan was at number 5 on the index with Visa-free access to 172 countries. There were 14 countries ahead of Japan and 4 other countries at the same position. In 2018, Japan jumped to Number 1 position on the Index with Visa-free access to 190 countries and have maintained that position till date.
The process of getting a Tourist Visa
One might wonder what’s the big deal about getting a permit before you enter a country. After all, some strong passport holders have to do the same to enter India (or another country low on the Index) as well. The difference is the process itself. While the weaker passport holders have to prove beyond doubt that they have the financial means to travel and strong enough ties back home to return, the already privileged lot has to go through a very customary process to get the Visa.
Most tourist Visa applications are more or less the same. Proof of financial stability, proof of ties with home country, income tax returns, insurance, etc.
I have taken the example of Schengen Visa because because it’s one of the most coveted Visas that gives an individual access to almost all of Europe. And, the most common nationality I meet while traveling in India (and even outside India) is – Germans. So, let’s see a quick comparison of what it takes them to travel to India and what it takes Indians to travel to Germany (through Schengen Visa).
Another account of Visa experience : https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2019/07/10/visa-applications-emotional-tax-privileged-passports/
Getting a visa without having to step out of your home? That’s some privilege.
Imagine having to take leave for your vacation and then additional leave to get Visa for that vacation. These embassies are mostly located in Mumbai and New Delhi, most of the embassies are only located in New Delhi. Global travel therefore, largely remains an elitist, privileged hobby in a country like India.
The difference in treatment can be felt from the very websites. Schengen visa application form focusses on ‘proving’ multiple things like financial stability, strong ties to home, etc. and the Indian e-visa application website ensures the users know the application is ‘lengthy but easy to fill in’, the process is smooth and quick. Essentially being very careful nobody gets discouraged out of the process.
While traveling in South America, I met a woman in Colombia who had been to India a year ago and was surprised to know that it was an arduous process to get Colombia Visa on my Indian passport. Because her experience of getting Indian Visa was as smooth as it could be. I met a few other people from Argentina and another from Colombia who had similar experience of getting Indian Visa on their Colombian and Argentinian Passports which was polar opposite from mine.
What it does to our travel dreams?
I remember meeting a guy from Europe while traveling in India who said, ‘It’s so annoying I had to fill a form before coming to India’. I had never stepped foot outside India until then. In fact, a few months later when I did decide to travel outside India, my first question was, Where CAN I go?
Here is an example of traveling in a third continent:
Indian: I needed to get Visa for every single country in South America except Ecuador (that’s gone btw, now Indians need an expensive Visa to enter Ecuador). Bolivia Visa is available on arrival but at a cost and it was not clear if it’s even possible at the land border and I was crossing by land so I got a Visa. This process is not only tiring, emotionally taxing, but also expensive. I spent $700 in Visa fees alone, add to that the cost of traveling to New Delhi twice, travelling to South Mumbai multiple times, getting the documentation in place (return tickets that couldn’t be used etc.), I spent about Rs. 100,000 ($1300) before I could set foot on a plane.
German: I was sitting in the hostel lobby with a friend of mine I had met while traveling. I must have shared my confusion on the next destination as we were in Colombia and I couldn’t go any further from there without a Visa.
He asked, ‘What’s a Visa?’. He asked this in all seriousness. In hindsight, maybe he was just flexing his German passport privilege. But I earnestly explained to him what it is and how it affects my travel decisions. There was not one person on the table who could relate because ALL of them had hopped on a cheap flight out of their country to land in Colombia without having to think of going through a process months beforehand.
This absence of privilege, doesn’t allow me to travel on a whim; this absence of privilege keeps me from booking random flights available for dirt cheap prices; this absence of privilege meant I couldn’t travel at my pace or buddy up while traveling because often my stay was much shorter than my travel counterparts (My Peru Visa was 20 days, that’s about the duration to take single decent hike, nothing else).
It is therefore not surprising, In the year that I spent in Latin America, I met three people traveling on an Indian passport and all of them had a US Visa through their work.
It makes me sad to think of how the world is designed to uplift people who don’t need upliftment and the same world is designed to fail people who are born with less privileges. Some people are definitely more equal than the others.
Purchasing power outside the home country:
One of the reasons most developing country passport holders are treated so poorly is the lower purchasing power. I can’t deny that. I can get a lot less for my money outside India. I also make a lot less for my education and work experience compared to my European friends.
So, you see, that’s not something I have chosen either.
I was talking to my host in Guatemala, who had recently completed school, he worked in a call center and was practicing English with me. At that point, I had completed engineering, worked as a software engineer for three years, then went on to pursure MBA from a university of good repute, followed by a consulting job for 1.5 years. At the beginning of my career I had also worked in a call center to ride the recession.
After graduation, masters, and over five years of working in reputable companies, I earned a little less than he did working in a call center in Guatemala. The living expenses in Guatemala were comparable to living expenses in Mumbai.
There’s one more thing we are deprived of – A working holiday visa. Indian passport holders cannot apply for a working holiday visa in ANY country (It’s reciprocative, but who is losing by not being able to make money in India).
People in developed countries can work for a year, save and use that money to travel in cheaper countries. But what do you do when you already live in one of the cheapest countries?
My travel experience without the passport privilege:
I crossed the Belize border to enter into Guatemala, joined the long queue only to be told at the counter that I could not enter Guatemala on my US Visa. I had read on multiple platforms that I did not need a Guatemala visa if I had a valid US Visa.
Without a local SIM card, limited Spanish speaking skills, I was left with no option but to go to the nearest embassy. I crossed the Belize border again (got the bags checked, took special permission to skip paying another exit fee, got currency changed, took a cab) and reached the Guatemala embassy (fortunately, it was present in the nearest town). I waited for about an hour only to be told that I was in fact right.
I hitched a ride to the border, got my bags checked, got exit fee waived, and crossed into Guatemala again to join the queue. This time, the same person stamped my passport without saying anything. He had received a call from the embassy on my insistence. I had also requested at the embassy to sign a paper with this data to ensure i didn’t have trouble exiting the country or re-entering the country.
Not one other person of the hoard of white tourists had to do this. Just me with my brown skin and Indian passport seemed vulnerable enough to be bullied like this.
I was flying out of Colombia which was my first flight in 7 months so I had forgotten about passport privileges. Reaching the immigration counter, the lady looked at my passport, worked on her computer and without saying anything left with my passport. Every single person behind me got cleared one by one at the other counters. And I stood there while people looked at me, some with empathy, some with suspicion. The lady came back when I was upset and angry at the same time, she asked why was my passport issued in Bogota. I told her with some anger, ‘Because I was robbed in Colombia and HAD to get a new passport made here’. There was not an iota of empathy or understanding.
Some more discussions between multiple people later, I was given a go ahead.
Losing my passport in Colombia:
Along with a zillion other things, one thing that I had to worry about when I got mugged in Colombia was, ‘what’s my status here now?’. I had managed to get a new passport from the Indian embassy but with my old passport gone, my US Visa and entry stamp of Colombia was gone with it too. I was in Colombia using my US Visa.
To sort this situation I had to spend a few hours at the immigration office, wait for their confirmation email, visit the airport and wait a couple of hours there, then visit the airport office again only to wait for 4 more hours. My second visit was after I got a new US Visa. It would be very polite of me to say ‘it was frustrating’.
This was the experience of a Swedish traveler who lost his passport in Colombia. First of all, he didn’t consider there could be an issue leaving the country without the entry stamp on his new passport. He visited the airport when I told him how many visits it had taken me to get this sorted. He spent, at best, 10 minutes at the airport, to be told, ‘there was no need to visit the airport, it’s okay’.
I felt like a fool to have insisted he gets this sorted before his flight the next day.
Being asked for return flight ticket, being made to wait longer at land borders, etc. is all too common on a less privileged passport.
If you enjoy travel and are stuck with a less privileged passport, I feel your pain.