Passports and Visas


passportsWhat's your nationality? Should it matter? We know that traveling abroad is financially out of reach of most people around the world. In developed economies, the percentage that can afford it is much higher, but never 100%. But there is another category: those who are politically unable to travel abroad. This is currently a hot topic in the U.S., where one candidate for president has suggested barring Muslims from coming to the United States. In the past, it might have been communists or homosexuals. Then there are the travel bans that a country might impose on its citizens. "You can't go there. We don't like them."

The basic tool for travel is the passport. It is the official document issued to citizens by the country of citizenship. For years, Americans traveled to Cuba despite a travel ban. They'd take flights from countries like Mexico. When they arrived, Cuban officials agreed not to stamp the passport, thus eliminating proof the traveler had violated the ban. I think we can be pretty sure that this was all just a game. In reality, U.S. intelligence was probably aware of everyone who went there.

For travel to many countries, a visa is also required. This is a document issued by the country you wish to visit. It is the way that a country monitors visitors. In the proposed Muslim ban, a visa to visit the U.S. would not be granted by the U.S. government. But surprise! Even if you have a valid passport and visa, you can be denied entry when you arrive to any country. Imagine flying halfway around the world and then being denied entry. It happens. Immigration officers have the authority to refuse entry. No reason is necessary.

Here at ELI, we have a Peruvian national, Janella Stephenson. As I write this, she is in Nepal visiting our programs there. Traveling on a Peruvian passport has made her trip much more difficult than for most. Each stop along the way she has been questioned by immigration and held to a different standard. In Nepal she was actually told that her passport was not valid! On her way home to the U.S., she will have an 18 hour layover in Beijing, enough time to go into the city for a glimpse of the Forbidden City. Citizens of 50+ countries can get a free 72 hour transit visa when they arrive in China. That would be perfect! But no, Peru is not on that list of eligible countries. Instead, Janella has gone to the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu and applied (and paid) for a visa. Hope it works!

ELI gets a lot of inquiries from would-be travelers in countries that are not on the "favored" list. Many would like to do internships in countries where we have programs like Ireland and New Zealand, but getting a visa is virtually impossible. So many talented people around the world are deprived of the opportunities that we take for granted in developed economies. On occasion we succeed in helping someone break through these barriers, but immigration politics remain a huge obstacle for our dreams of intercultural exchange. 

The purpose of this post is to simply to point out that traveling abroad is not a universally acknowledged right. There are sometimes huge obstacles to overcome. No matter how frustrating it can be, just remember how lucky you are!

By Kevin O'Neill


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