Insights from the Henley Passport Index

As we enter a new decade, the latest results from the Henley Passport Index provide us with a fascinating snapshot of the world in which we now live.

Ten years ago, the UK held the number-one spot on the index, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 166. Japan is now in first place, with passport holders able to access 191 destinations around the world without needing to acquire a visa in advance. In 2010, the lowest ranking country on the index was Afghanistan, with a score of 26. Ten years later, Afghanistan remains at the bottom of the index, and, astonishingly, its score remains the same. In other words, there is a growing divide when it comes to travel freedom – a difficult truth that sits alongside the fact that globalization has made us more mobile and connected than ever before.


It is undeniably the case that, over the years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of countries an average individual can visit without needing to get a visa in advance. But this surge is driven largely by developed countries, with developing countries remaining static in this respect. Put very simply, Japanese passport holders are able to access 165 more destinations around the globe than Afghan passport holders can. Analysis of historical data from the index reveals that this extraordinary global mobility gap is the starkest it has been since the index’s inception.


This is just one of many insights that the latest ranking provides. Ten years ago, the top three spots were held by European countries: the UK at number one, Denmark second, and Sweden third. Asian countries now dominate the upper reaches of the rankings, with Singapore in second place and South Korea in third. The year 2020 marks the third year running in which Japan has held the top spot, and it seems clear that this trend is likely to continue. While Asian countries are on the rise, countries whose positions once seemed unshakeable are declining. The UK has dropped in the rankings over the past ten years, and now sits in eighth place with the US. While it is not yet possible to make any firm predictions about the effect that Brexit will have on UK passport power, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will regain the first place position it once held. The same is true of the US — a look at the historical data shows that in 2014, the country was ranked first when it came to travel freedom, but with the implementation of ever-stricter immigration policies the top spot appears to be well out of reach for now.


Overall, European countries continue to fare extremely well in the rankings. Going into 2020, Finland and Italy share joint fourth place, with a score of 188, while Denmark, Luxembourg, and Spain hold fifth place, with a score of 187. Of the 30 countries that take up the index’s top 10 positions, 21 are European: a clear testament to the value of an EU passport and the travel freedom it guarantees. Again, it’s not yet possible to make firm predictions as to what impact Brexit will have on the composition of the top 20, if any. As was the case at the beginning of 2019, uncertainty surrounds the future of migration and mobility between the UK and the EU, with many questions yet to be answered.


The index’s dramatic success story remains the sustained upward ascent of the UAE, which climbed four places over the past year and now sits in 18th place, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 171. Looking back at the historical data, the rise of the UAE passport seems almost meteoric – it has climbed an extraordinary 47 places over the past decade, as the country has implemented a succession of mutually reciprocated visa waivers in a bid to attract tourism and trade. Taiwan’s ascent has also been impressive – it has moved up 37 places since 2010, with passport holders now able to access 146 destinations around the world without acquiring a visa in advance. Countries in the former Soviet space have fared well over the past ten years, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, climbing 19 and 22 places up the rankings respectively, with dramatic increases in score. Western Balkan countries have also done well over this period, as many of them relaxed their formerly restrictive immigration policies and implemented a series of reciprocal visa waivers. Albania, for instance, now sits in 54th place, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 114, compared with its 2010 score of just 49. It is worth pausing to consider what these extraordinary increases mean for the citizens of these countries – in terms of travel freedom, of course, but also in terms of personal and professional opportunities, and expanded horizons.


Alongside the index’s success stories, a number of somewhat bleaker narratives emerge. Globally, states affected by ongoing conflict or unrest have experienced heavy losses in their scores over the past decade. In the Middle East, Syria has dropped 18 places since 2010, with citizens now able to access just 29 destinations without needing to acquire a visa in advance, while Yemen has dropped 15 spots in that period, from 88th to 103rd place, and now has a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 33. In Africa, Libya has dropped 16 places, from 87th to 103rd place, while Mali has dropped 13, from 75th to 88th place. It is fascinating to consider the implications of this in conjunction with ongoing research about the connection between travel freedom and other kinds of liberties, whether they be economic, political, or individual. For instance, research using exclusive historical data from the index has revealed that there is a strongly positive connection between visa freedom and a variety of indicators of economic freedom, including foreign direct investment inflows, property rights, tax burdens, and investment freedom. Research also indicates the robustly positive connection between powerful passports and key socio-economic indicators such as government integrity and personal or political freedom.


We are living in an era of extremes – in terms of political volatility, inequality, and the climate crisis – and the latest results from the index show us that the same is true of travel freedom. This is an inflection point of sorts – will that mobility gap get smaller, as the forces of globalization bring us closer together, or will it get wider, as other forces prevail?

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