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The Predictors of Passport Power

Dr. Juerg Steffen

Dr. Juerg Steffen

Dr. Juerg Steffen is CEO of Henley & Partners and author of definitive books on high-net-worth relocation to Austria and Switzerland.

The general trend over the history of the 18-year-old Henley Passport Index ranking has been towards greater travel freedom, with the average number of destinations travelers are able to access visa-free nearly doubling from 58 in 2006 to 109 in 2023. However, the global mobility gap between those at the top and bottom of the index is now wider than it has ever been, with top-ranked Singapore able to access 165 more destinations visa-free than Afghanistan. So, what are the factors that influence a country’s passport strength and contribute to its rise or fall on the ranking? And what can governments do to positively impact and improve their passport power?

Reciprocity matters, but not entirely 

Only eight countries worldwide have less visa-free access today than they did a decade ago. However, some nations have been far more successful than others in securing greater travel freedom for their citizens. The visa-policy space is very dynamic — one that is changing on an almost weekly basis. It is precisely this dynamism that has enabled Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, and South Korea to ascend the Henley Passport Index ranking in recent years, while prominent countries in the Anglosphere have been on a steady decline, most notably, the UK and the USA, which jointly held 1st place on the ranking in 2014.

Male in suit checking in before flight

When it comes to governments securing visa waivers with other countries, the process is often set in motion by factors such as commonalities in their history and economic status, proactive foreign relations, and reciprocal agreements: in other words, countries tend to make travel easier for the citizens of states that have made travel and trade easier for their own citizenry. However, security concerns, religious and cultural affiliations, and political alliances also come into play. There are many countries in the world that have wholesale bans on nationals of specific countries entering their borders or on their own citizens traveling to certain states due to security concerns or collapsed diplomatic relations (or because of one state’s non-recognition of the other).

Tourism boosts border openness 

Another major driver of visa policy decisions is the relative importance that a government places on tourism (including its annual targets for visitors). In the Middle East, we are seeing countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE heavily prioritizing tourism as part of their long-term economic strategies (which relates to their shared objective of moving away from an overdependence on the oil sector), and this trend will see tourist-dependent states being more proactive about liberalizing their internal visa policies.

The UAE has added an impressive 107 destinations to its visa-free score since 2013, resulting in a massive leap of 44 places on the Henley Passport Index from 56th to 12th position with a score of 179. This is almost double the next biggest climber, Colombia, which has enjoyed a jump of 28 places in the ranking to sit in 37th spot. Other countries that have managed to significantly improve their place on the index include China, Ukraine, Timor-Leste, Moldova, and Georgia.

Stability builds passport strength

By contrast, The Gambia is one of the biggest fallers on the index over the past decade. Ironically, it ranked immediately above the UAE at the end of 2012, in 63rd place, but while the UAE passport has soared, The Gambia’s has followed the opposite trajectory. It currently sits in 71st place, having fallen 11 spots over 10 years. Venezuela is the biggest faller overall, plunging 17 places, followed by Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, and North Korea. Most of the countries that have fallen sharply over the preceding decade have been afflicted by conflict and economic crises — a bleak illustration of the proven link between passport power and economic and political stability established by Henley & Partners.

Our research showed that while citizens of upper middle- and high-income countries enjoy visa-free access to most destinations, citizens of lower middle- and low-income countries, as well as those with higher fragility scores, enjoy far less travel freedom because they are deemed to be high-risk when it comes to security, asylum, and overstay. Interestingly, however, the study found that while the world’s democracies on average have higher visa-free scores, both democratic and authoritarian regimes have increased their visa-free scores since 2006, at somewhat similar rates.

While democracy may not be a strong determinant of passport power, our research comparing a country’s visa-free access with its Global Peace Index score, shows a strong correlation between a nation’s passport power and its peacefulness. All the nations occupying the Top 10 ranks of the Henley Passport Index can also be found in the Top 10 ranks of the Global Peace Index. And likewise for the bottom-ranking nations.

Exploring the links between visa-free access and openness 

New research conducted by Henley & Partners into the relationship between a country’s openness to foreigners — how many nations it allows to cross its borders visa-free — and its own citizens’ travel freedom, gauged using the Henley Passport Index, also provides useful insights into the determinants of passport power.

The new Henley Openness Index ranks all 199 countries worldwide according to the number of nationalities they permit entry to without a prior visa. The results clearly show that although the relationship between travel freedom (Henley Passport Index score) and openness (Henley Openness Index score) is not straightforward, there is a correlation. It is notable, for instance, that both Singapore and South Korea — among the top climbers on the Henley Passport Index over last decade, moving from 6th and 7th respectively in 2013 up to 1st and 3rd today — boast relatively high degrees of openness, while the USA and neighboring Canada have slid down the Top 10 rankings as their own openness stagnates.

While American passport holders can access 184 (out of 227) destinations visa-free, the USA itself only allows 44 other nationalities to pass through its borders visa-free, putting it way down the Henley Openness Index in 78th place (compared to 8th place on the Henley Passport Index). When comparing the two rankings, the USA’s disparity in access versus its openness is the second biggest globally, narrowly trailing only Australia (and barely outpacing Canada). New Zealand and Japan also make it into the Top 5 countries with the biggest difference between the travel freedom they enjoy versus the visa-free access they give to other nationalities. It is interesting to note that these five nations have all either dropped down the Henley Passport Index rankings or remained in the same spot over the last ten years.

Powerful passports drive economic growth

History has shown that countries such as those in the upper echelons of the Henley Passport Index, with more open economies that encourage foreign investment and international trade, tend to grow faster, are more innovative and productive, and provide higher income and more opportunities to their citizens. Conversely, the reverse holds true. There are developing nations with significant and growing private wealth that have not yet built the geopolitical, diplomatic, and trade relationships that enable their governments to sign visa waivers with other countries, placing their citizens at a disadvantage.

For sovereign states, improving its passport’s power not only benefits its citizens in terms of increased travel and financial freedom, but it also makes the country more attractive to foreign investors seeking residence or citizenship by investment opportunities. International entrepreneurs, businesspeople and affluent families are more likely to invest in countries that can assist in advancing their economic mobility through visa-free access to more stable economies and key markets that represent a higher proportion of the world’s GDP. By appropriately applying the framework of investment migration programs, nations can build their sovereign equity, attract foreign direct investment, reduce their public debts, and allocate investors’ funds to national or regional social, infrastructure, and development projects that benefit their citizens.

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