Traveling with a Weak Passport - Hello from the Other Side
Hello from the other side
Why Traveling with a Weak Passport is Not the Same
Traveling with a Weak Passport - Hello from the Other Side
I have been traveling solo for over 5 years now, which I am rather proud of, given that I travel with a weak passport (Indian). But before I get into that, I would like to note the most obvious and unchanged trend I noticed through all my international travels, i.e., the type of travelers I came across. By type, I mean, travelers from certain countries who outnumber the rest by a huge margin. This is something which I have observed everywhere in the world I had gone to. These ‘certain countries’ are the US, Canada, European Union citizens, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. I also came across a good many number of travelers from Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
Now what do these countries have in common?
1. A very strong passport. To check out the Global Passport Rank for 2018, click here.
2. National currencies which are stronger than most other foreign economies.
3. Higher earnings, and therefore, more purchasing power.
Not all passports are created equal
When I say a ‘strong passport,” I mean that it’s a passport from a country that allows you to travel internationally without obtaining pre-approved visas, and paying hefty visa fees. In most cases, holders of strong passports can enter a country visa free (no fees) or obtain a VOA (visa on arrival for free or a small fee) by simply showing their passports and nothing more. So, of course, this makes international travel a lot easier, affordable and stress free
As for weak passports, they are pretty much the opposite of the strong ones. Simply put, you are more likely to be a holder of a weak passport if you belong to a developing/Third World country, which has a lower per capita income, and/or are from a nation with insufficient or no public welfare schemes, low literacy rates, and/or considered to be from a war or terrorist prone land. Moreover, your passport becomes weak when other countries believe your nationality (no matter how good your personal circumstances are) makes you a potential illegal migrant to their own territory because you, sad little Third World national, obviously want to migrate to a better place!
And so, they force you to apply for a pre-approved visa before you can set foot on their soil. In other words, asking you to get a prior visa is basically a rigorous (and often insulting) screening process to ensure that you will haul your brown/black/Muslim ass back to your significantly worse country than theirs.
With weak passports come high visa fees
The application process for the visas normally involves incredibly high fees. For example, I paid CAD 100 for my Canadian visa, USD 160 for my US visa, AUD 145 for my Australian visa, NZD 165 for my New Zealand visa, and GBP 100 for my UK visa. These are all short term visitor visa fees. On top of that, you have the factor in the cost of visa application handling fees, passport handling fees and a range of other expenses they can possibly think of to get more money out of you.
Traveling with a weak passport? Get ready to submit 100000 documents for your visa
Besides the visa fees, you have to submit a whole plethora of documents such as bank statements (signed, dated and sealed from the bank, not electronic copies), Income Tax Returns from the last 3 three years, booked return flight tickets, hotel reservations, day by day itinerary and permission from your employer that you have been granted leave to travel. Note that this is not even the exhaustive list. Embassies can ask you for any document based on their whim and fancy.
These documents are what you have to present if you are from a developing country, traveling to a wealthier one. Or even to countries that are economically the same or weaker than yours. For example, I needed a pre-approved visa for Egypt for which I had to show the aforementioned documents (except Income Tax Returns). Still, I got a visa for only 15 days as opposed to the normal 30 days.
Asking for bank statements from visitors from developing countries makes sense as it’s a way to ensure that the travelers have enough funds to sustain themselves when visiting a place which has a much higher cost of living. Nonetheless, asking for confirmed flight tickets seems mighty unfair as there is always the possibility of the visa being rejected. Flight tickets are expensive and mostly non-refundable. Even if they are not, you can lose a lot of money as cancellation fees. Sure, you have the option of buying fully refundable tickets but they cost a lot and can put a huge block on your credit card. There are also agencies that can issue you ‘temporary tickets’ just for your visa application for a fee ranging from USD 25-50. But why oh why, should we have to go through these means??
The demand for leave approval from your employer or institution operates with the logic that travelers are not randomly taking off from work. So what if they are? All immigration authorities think that people from poorer countries would want to migrate to greener pastures, so they need proof that the person is actually employed and therefore, more likely to come back. So, why does that still feel so demeaning? Am I being too sensitive? Similarly, when they ask for your day-to-day itinerary, it seems like they want to track you like you are a criminal who needs to be constantly followed around and whose every move needs to be recorded.
Weak passports mean Transit Visas. Fun!
Not to forget, some EU countries, USA, Canada and the UK won’t even let you transit, meaning won’t even let you step inside their airport, if you belong to a certain nationality. They would demand you have a transit visa, which lo and behold, at times absurdly ask for the same documents you would need to show for a tourist visa! It sure is an awesome feeling to know that you are so unwelcome that you need to pay a fee, do paperwork for a transit visa just so you can put your dirty Third World foot on their pristine land.
So you dare travel with a weak passport? Get ready to be infantilized and be treated as a deranged, potential immigrant by the visa authorities
Some visa application processes can truly be demeaning. For example, when applying for a Greek visa, they want hotel accommodations that are not free if you cancel. This is to make sure that you cannot alter your place of stay after receiving the visa and can be easily traceable. Likewise, if you are a non-working applicant wanting to travel to Japan with enough funds of your own, you would still need a letter of permission from your spouse or your parents to do so.
Similarly, if you are planning on going for your honeymoon in Spain, you would need to show your wedding invitation card, your wedding photos and permission from both parents that you are allowed to go. Because you know, it’s totally normal for two grown adults to seek permission from their parents to go on a holiday somewhere. Speaking from my own experience, when my parents wanted to visit Spain for the birth of my son, my OBGYN had to write a letter confirming my pregnancy and due date for my parent’s visa application. They have booked flights and their visas (which took over two weeks to get approved) was valid from and to their flight dates. Not a day more, not a day less. What if one of them had fallen ill and couldn’t fly back on the intended date? Then they would accuse them for overstaying their visas, and then use that as a reason to deny them visas in the future.
Why people with weak passports are unable to travel with open dates/in a more free manner?
All in all, when asked to present booked flight tickets, itineraries etc to obtain a visa, the scope of spontaneous travel for people like me is almost eliminated. You have to give yourself enough time to apply for the visa if you wish to travel to any country that requires one from you (which in my case is most!). So, the thrill of finding a cheap one-way flight ticket and just taking off is something I doubt I can ever experience.
Country hopping (except the Schengen) with a weak passport? Good luck, mate!
Moreover, it becomes equally hard to simply go on a multiple countries tour. Let me explain, say I want to travel around Brazil, Argentina and Chile. All these countries require pre-approved visas for Indians. They also want you to give booked flights in and out of their country. And if you are traveling to a country besides yours, they want to see visas for those countries too! Do you see the issue? Brazil would ask to see a valid visa for Chile if that was my next destination to issue me a Brazilian visa, and Chile would want to see a valid visa from Brazil if I was entering from there. So where do I start? Sure, I can book fully refundable return flights from Brazil for the visa, cancel them when I get it, and repeat the same process for Chile. But imagine the amount of money that I would have to waste and how time consuming all of this would be.
The agonizing time game
In fact, time is another factor to consider. Gathering endless documents for visas require a lot of time, and visiting Visa Application Centres and attending visa interviews mean you have to take workdays off. Even more so is the fact that once you have applied for the visa, you will have to wait for the decision from anything between one to eight weeks! The fastest visa that I have gotten took me less than a week, but on an average I have to wait for over a month. Now imagine, after all that effort, time and money, your visa gets rejected. How heart-breaking will that be? No wonder, you don’t see more travelers with weak passports traveling on months at an end or even traveling at all.
Weak passport? You gotta pay up more
Another stark aspect of this whole visa conundrum is how the cost of visa fees depends on your nationality. People with strong passports, i.e., travelers from wealthier countries generally don’t have to pay for a visa if they are visa exempt. Even if they do have to pay for one, it is significantly lower than what you pay as a holder of a weak passport. When I visited Turkey, I paid USD 45 for a single entry visa valid for a month, while my American partner paid USD 20 for a multiple entry visa valid for 3 months. Similarly, visa on arrival for the UAE costs USD 65, or USD 35 if I have a US green card or visa. However, EU nationals, Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis can simply cross through automated immigration gates without paying for anything or talking to a soul!
One can say that people from developing nations are charged more as a way of ensuring that they have enough moolah to travel. However, I believe the sinister truth is that atrociously high visa fees are just to dissuade travelers from (what the First World countries consider) ‘problematic’ countries form visiting. Let me just add here that the fees are not always based on reciprocation policies. In case of my country, India, visas fees for most foreign nationals is much lower than what we are asked to pay when we visit their countries.
Even with my weak passport, I have been fairly lucky that I was never been rejected a visa. It becomes even harder for those to travel to countries that demand visas if they have been denied visas in the past. Most countries do not want to give visas to people from developing nations if another country had previously found them unfit to enter their territory. Does that mean all these travelers with weak passports are truly unfit or meaning to migrate illegally? Not at all. I have come across well educated people with high paying jobs denied visas from Europe because they were young and single, and therefore, pose a threat of marrying someone there and settling down there.
And the absolute worst: Approved visa but still denied entry
There oh so many cases of legit Indian travelers being denied entry despite having a valid visa or qualifying for visa on arrival under some pretext or other. For instance, Georgia and Bolivia technically offer visa on arrival to Indians. Travelers who have been carrying proof of return flight, hotel accommodations and enough cash, were refused entry, harassed by immigration officers, charged absurd visa fees to enter or simply send back. Read this harrowing account of an Indian woman in Georgia here.
Security officials love people with weak passports
The way an immigration officer treats you largely depends on the passport you hold. I have travelled with enough European and American friends and partners to note how easily they breeze through immigration absolutely anywhere in the world while my passport and visas get looked at and scrutinized with distaste. I have been questioned and asked to present additional documents, which I legally should not have been asked for despite having a valid visa already.
Euro, Dollar and Pound are the Kings
While the US dollar is the global currency which you can exchange in any country in the world, you can pretty much do the same with Euros, Yens, CADs, AUDs, GBPs and NZDs as well. Moreover, these currencies are much stronger than almost all other currencies in the world. So, even if you get a shockingly poor exchange rate on the strong currencies, you still don’t lose a lot.
Weak passports go hand in hand in most cases if not always with a weak currency to boot. My Indian Rupee, for instance, lately has fallen against all major currencies a lot. For the same reason, I ended up spending around 25% more in Egypt because I was forced to buy and pay in USDs as some tour companies in Egypt charge you only in USD, Euro or GBP.
Weak purchasing power limits travel
I have already discussed why developing nations have weak passports. Similarly, because these countries are after all “developing,” their per capital income is (at times significantly) lower than what of developed countries with strong passports. To give an example, an engineer starting off in India would earn EUR 400 monthly as an average, while a Western European engineer with the exact same qualifications or even lower and working same hours or less would be earning EUR 2000 minimum after taxes.
With that in mind, now when an Indian and an European want to purchase an international flight ticket (prices of which are more or less the same wherever you buy them from), who do you think can afford them more easily?
I have known Europeans who have intentionally been unemployed to get doles from their government, and used their dole money to travel the world! I have also met travelers who have quit their jobs and are traveling with the money they get from their government as social welfare. While I don’t particularly mind people who have quit their jobs to travel with government aid, I find it rather hard to digest people being intentionally unemployed to travel with government dole! Such an idea, is beyond my comprehensibility. I have to meticulously save and plan for months to take a two week long trip abroad, but here are some people traveling without even having to work for it.
So, besides the many hurdles that one faces due to a weak passport, when it comes to international travel, those with weak purchasing power obviously cannot travel long term if they can travel at all. Here, one can suggest that ‘Well, they can always work in the foreign country and travel, like a work holiday?’ That’s a great idea but people with weak passports normally don’t even qualify for work-holiday visas. In fact, all my visas from First World countries, clearly states “No Work Permitted.”
I have a PhD in English, and speak it fluently and with a neutral accent, but still couldn’t’ find a job as an “English Language Teacher” because I am not considered a native speaker and also do not have a passport from US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia the UK and Ireland. Note here that South Africa which is considered native English speaking is not included as it is not technically first World. On the other hand, an Irish cocaine dealer and addict I know of (who never straightened out by the way), escaped from Ireland to get away from his crippling debt, by becoming an English teacher in South Korea, which is one of the best and most high paying places to teach English. He had barely graduated school, didn’t go to college, only scraped through the ESL teacher exam. But hey, he gets a job because of his Irish passport and because he speaks “native English.”
So, what’s the solution?
Issues such as weak currencies and weak purchasing power are consequences of complex problems, which would take several years to change. Regarding weak passports, however, things are starting to look brighter. A lot of countries allow Indians who hold valid US visa or European residency to travel to their countries visa free.
I was able to visit the Philippines, Peru and Colombia without their respective visas because I have a US visa. This whole policy of ‘visa free for Indians with US/European visas’ adopted by smaller or poorer countries is based on the believe that if the US has deemed this person fit to get a visa, meaning that the US does not see him/her as a potential immigrant, it is unlikely that this person would migrate illegally to their country.
Nonetheless, some of the visa application processes need to change. It is unacceptable to demand a letter of consent from parents of adults who want to honeymoon in Spain. It is degrading to ask proof of their daughter’s pregnancy from parents wanting to attend the birth of their grandson in Europe.
I find Schengen visas the most problematic and ruthless. Since I have lived in Europe for many years, I know if I ever wish to travel there, I would most likely score a visa easily. However, I am quite happy boycotting it for now and not giving it my hard earned money while it continues to demean me with its nonsensical visa rules.
In the end, traveling with a weak passport can be extremely difficult. It is unfair that I don’t get to travel the way my First World counterparts travel. But it is what it is, I have to accept that my passport, currency and buying power is weak, and with that in mind, I have to make the most of it. And I guess, this is what makes me want to travel more and more with it. It’s like saying out to the world “You want to stop from traveling? Try and stop me!” For me, it’s a challenge, I won’t let my weak passport beat me down. I only have one life and there is so much to see, weak passport or not, I have to make it count.