International travel can be a breeze or burden depending on what passport you hold. This is a reality some might be oblivious to if they’ve never endured the rigmarole of a protracted visa application. For German passport holders, for example, visiting Cambodia is pretty straightforward. They can get a 30-day-tourist visa from Cambodia’s Berlin embassy for a €40 ($44) processing fee, provided they own a passport that is valid for at least six months at the time of entry.
Alternatively, they can obtain a 30-day-tourist visa online for a mere $36 (€33), with a processing time of just three days. Or, easier still, Germans can fly to Cambodia and get a visa on arrival at the airport.
An entirely different picture presents itself when Cambodian passport holders want to visit Germany. They need to submit an invitation letter, provide six months’ worth of bank statements, proof of income and assets, alongside a range of other personal documents. A visa application costs the equivalent of €80 ($87), a fee that’s non-refundable and payable in cash. “They ask you a few questions and if they think you are credible and convincible, they will give you a visa,” Arun, a middle-aged Cambodian who wishes to remain anonymous told DW. Arun has been through it before and knows the visa application process well.
What, then, explains this stark difference in passport power? One answer is economics.
Henley & Partners, a residence and citizenship advisory firm, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) regularly rank the world’s strongest and weakest passports based on how many destinations passport holders can enter either visa-free, or with a visa-on-arrival.
Its latest report ranks G7 member states Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Britain, the US and Canada as having some of the world’s most powerful passports. The top-ranked Japanese passport grants easy access to no less than 193 travel destinations. Together, G7 states account for over 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP). They also have some of the highest GDP per capita in the world, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) figures.
Henley & Partners write that “countries are more willing to open up their borders to citizens from wealthier countries because doing so is likely to pay greater economic dividends in the form of trade, tourism, and investment.”
Conversely, Henley & Partners say that passport holders from countries with “high levels of poverty and economic instability […] are considered as posing a high risk for overstaying their visas” and will face greater hurdles entering foreign countries.
Cambodian passport holder Arun knows this too well. “Cambodia is a poor country, as such its travel document is also less powerful,” he told DW. Indeed, Henley & Partners deem the Cambodian passport among the weakest travel documents in the world, granting visa-free access to just over 50 countries.
Mohammad, a Berlin-based journalist, who also requested DW withhold his true identity, experienced first-hand what it means to swap out a weak for a strong passport. He used to own a Pakistani passport, which Henley & Partners ranks as the fourth-weakest document for worldwide travel, affording visa-free access to a mere 32 countries. Recently, however, Mohammad became a German citizen through naturalization.
“With a Pakistani passport, I always had to undergo a complex, lengthy visa process, and there was always a chance that the visa application would get rejected,” Mohammad told DW. “Secondly, when you travel to some countries, especially in the Middle East, you have to stand in a separate queue and go through extra queries.”
But since getting a German passport, travel has become a breeze. “I clearly feel the difference of a German passport,” Mohammad said. “I only need to apply for a visa for a few countries, and I can travel and explore many destinations with an on-arrival visa entry.”
This makes some passports especially coveted. Previously, some EU countries allowed third-party nationals to essential buy EU passports and enjoy the travel freedoms this entails if they make substantial financial investments in their country.
While many of these European schemes are being phased out due to political pressure, a growing number of Middle Eastern countries are starting to offer such deals as well. And they are not the only countries in the world to do so.
Roland Papp of Transparency International (TI), a non-governmental organization combating corruption, says today Malta is the only state in the EU still “giving away passports for investment.”
But allowing wealthy individuals to buy EU passports and enjoy the privileges they entail, such as hassle-free travel, is controversial.
“We have to consider what it says about our democracy that there are certain rights which, if you are rich enough, you can get and if you are poor, well, you struggle,” says Papp. “People who want to get citizenship [through conventional means such as naturalization] really go through a horribly bureaucratic process.”