The last decade has seen the greatest degree of freedom of global movement in history. Since 2006, the average number of countries that a person can visit without applying for a visa in advance has nearly doubled.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has led to mass cancellations of passenger flights, temporary visa suspensions, lockdowns, and closed borders around the world.
Christian Kälin, creator of the Henley Passport Index, believes that the situation will probably return to normal after the crisis, but that the pandemic could have a lasting impact on how countries decide their visa policies.
The Henley Passport Index ranks passports by the number of countries that they grant access to either visa-free or with a visa being granted on arrival.
Global visa information indicates that the average number of countries a traveler can visit without a visa or by obtaining a visa on arrival is 107. This is a huge increase from the average of 58 destinations in 2006, when the Henley Passport Index was created.
Japan is currently ranked as having the world’s most travel-friendly passport. At the start of 2020, the Japanese passport allowed its citizens to enter 191 different countries without having to apply for a visa beforehand.
Singapore is ranked second, with 190 countries, while South Korea and Germany come in tied for third place with 189.
The list is updated in real time to reflect changes in visa policy.
The outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has temporarily changed everything.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Passport Power
In the short term, the coronavirus pandemic has leveled the playing field in terms of the travel-enabling power of passport.
Spanish and Italian passports were both ranked as the 4th most powerful in the world at the start of 2020, allowing their citizens to visit 188 different countries without obtaining a visa in advance.
However, both countries have been heavily affected by the virus and both governments have initiated lockdowns and closed the borders to prevent the outbreak from spreading via travel.
This now means that the Bangladeshi passport, which was considered a poor passport for visa-free travel at the start of the year, currently enables easier travel than a Spanish one.
However, according to Kälin, the pandemic could have ramifications for worldwide visas and travel even after the crisis is over:
“If you look at this current crisis, aspects of health—the quality of health system, the quality of emergency care, access to health cover and healthy service—suddenly have come up. That has never been a consideration on visa policy so far,” Kälin said.
Before COVID-19, countries have based their visa policies on economic and geopolitical factors, such as their relationships with other nations and their interest in promoting tourism. It is possible that health security will become an important point for sovereign states to consider and if visa policies will be altered as a result.
Limitations of the Passport Index
The Henley Passport Index is not the only way to measure travel freedom or the geopolitical power of a country.
One big limitation of this system is that countries that grant visa exemption of visas on arrival to many nationalities are not necessarily desirable destinations.
For example, the United States of America and North Korea rank the same on the index, permitting the same number of nationalities to visit without a visa in advance. However, the USA is considered a more desirable destination for both leisure and business and attracts far more visitors.
Another problem is that the Henley Passport Index ranks countries by visa-free travel for short-term visits, but does not take into account the ease of relocating to other countries.
The Japanese passport, ranked first on the index, permits citizens of Japan to visit 191 different countries visa-free, but does not permit them to live in any country apart from Japan.
Conversely, passports of EU countries or Caribbean Community countries allow their holders to live in a large number of other sovereign states within their respective international organizations.
The difference between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom is a good example of the difference between passport power and the Quality of Nationality Index, which takes into account settlement rights and other factors, including GDP, human development, and internal peace.
The 2 nations are similar in terms of passport power. Ireland currently shares the 6th place on the Henley Passport Index, while the UK is 7th.
This is unlikely to change after Brexit, as British citizens are unlikely to be forced to get a visa to visit EU countries.
However, British nationals will no longer be able to live, work, or study in the EU without a visa or permit, meaning that the UK will fall down the rankings on the Quality of Nationality Index.
Whatever the destination, it is always a good idea to check visa requirements before traveling abroad, since visa requirements can vary according to the purpose of travel and visa policies and passport power can change over time.