The US and Europe’s tourist visa rules paint a stark picture of passport privilege

Not everyone is welcome.
Not everyone is welcome.
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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Scroll through Instagram influencers’ feeds on any given day, and you’re likely to come across at least one photo of a passport and boarding pass splayed on a table in the airport departure lounge. The snap usually signals its owner’s imminent departure to a far-off land, but for a sizable chunk of the world’s population, the idea of a passport as a symbol of a carefree vacation couldn’t be further from reality.

The third edition of the Quality of Nationality Index (QNI)—produced by international residence and citizenship planning firm Henley and Partners and legal academic Dimitry Kochenov—gives a global look on the benefits of citizenship in different countries. While the firm publishes a similar survey each year ranking the world’s most powerful passports, the QNI takes a slightly more nuanced approach. It focuses not just on the number of nations one can visit hassle-free with a given passport, but the relative quality of those nations too, based on factors including their economic success and political stability.

As the index puts it, “possessing a relatively high number of visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel destinations can still be relatively unvaluable if these destinations do not include any major tourist attractions or business centers. For most people, being able travel visa-free to London or New York City is more valuable than being able to travel visa-free to Maputo or Thimphu.”

Image for article titled The US and Europe’s tourist visa rules paint a stark picture of passport privilege
Image: Courtesy/Henley & Partners

Viewed through this admittedly Euro and US-centric world view, you can categorize the world’s tourists and business trip travelers into three broad—and extremely unequal—categories, pictured above. In doing so, two powerhouse regions emerge: the US and the Schengen Zone, or the 26 European nations that have abolished internal passport checks.

The first passport category are those nationalities which are entitled to visit both the US and the Schengen area either without a visa or with a visa issued on arrival. Second are the nationalities that can visit only the Schengen area visa-free or with a visa on arrival. And finally, there is the huge chunk of the world’s nationalities which can visit neither without applying for a visa.

The table below represents the geographical distribution of nations in the first two categories. Europe is more permissive, as all nationalities allowed in the US visa-free are also allowed in the Schengen area.

Passport privilege by continent

(North America includes nations in Central America and the Caribbean)

Naturally, some trends emerge. Passport holders from nearly the entire continent of Africa (save for Mauritius and the Seychelles, which are allowed to visit the Schengen zone) must apply for a special visa to visit both the US and Europe. The US allows only one South American country (Chile) and five Asian countries to visit without an advance visa.

Meanwhile, Europe is slightly more hospitable, welcoming 8 of South America’s 12 nations, as well as the majority of Eastern European and Baltic states. Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s roughly 195 countries need an advance visa to get access to either the US or Europe.

Saying one passport is “better” than the other is entirely relative. But one thing is certain: Some passport holders have to do a lot more paperwork if they want to see the world in its entirety.