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TravelGlobal issues

Why are some passports more powerful than others?

Benjamin Restle
July 13, 2023

Traveling the world is hassle-free with some passports, but nightmarish with others. What explains this imbalance?

A German passport is seen with a map of Europe
A German passport makes international travel a breezeImage: Micha Korb/pressefoto_korb/picture alliance

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 rigamarole 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 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.

Cambodia's Koh Rong island with sandy beaches
Cambodia's Koh Rong island boasts long, sandy beaches and has grown very popular with Western backpackersImage: Benjamin Restle/DW

An entirely different picture presents itself when Cambodians wish to visit Germany. They need to submit an invitation letter, provide six months' worth of bank statements and proof of income and assets, alongside a range of other personal documents. A visa application currently costs the equivalent of €80 ($87), a fee that's nonrefundable 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 man from the capital Phnom Penh, told DW. He knows the visa application process well, though we are not using his real name, as he wishes to remain anonymous.

What, then, explains this stark difference in passport power? One answer is economics.

Citizens from wealthier countries 'pay greater economic dividends'

Henley & Partners, a residence and citizenship advisory firm, and the International Air Transport Association 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, Italy, France, Britain, the US and Canada as having some of the world's most powerful passports. Together, G7 states account for over 40% of global gross domestic product. They also have some of the highest GDP per capita in the world, according to International Monetary Fund figures. Top-ranked Singaporean passport, meanwhile, grants easy access to no less than 193 travel destinations.

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."

A hand is seen holding an Afghan passport
The Afghan passport is the least useful for international travel, according to Henley & Partners, with visa-free access to just 27 destinationsImage: Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Conversely, Henley & Partners said 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 55 countries.

With a German passport, travel is a breeze

Mohammad, a Berlin-based journalist who also requested DW withhold his true identity, experienced firsthand what it means to swap out a weak for a strong passport. He used to possess a Pakistani passport, which Henley & Partners ranks as the fourth-weakest document for worldwide travel, affording visa-free access to a mere 33 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," he 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."

Passports for sale

This imbalance makes some passports especially coveted. Previously, some EU countries allowed third-party nationals to essential buy EU passports and enjoy the freedoms they provide in return for 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.

A Maltese passport
The Maltese passport is one of the world's top 5 most powerful passports, granting visa-free access to 188 destinationsImage: Government of Malta

Roland Papp of Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization combating corruption, said 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," said Papp. "People who want to get citizenship [through conventional means such as naturalization] really go through a horribly bureaucratic process."

Edited by: Sarah Hucal