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I was born in the United States, which has one of the best passports in the world, but this story isn’t about me. I’m not here today to brag about how I can travel easily; there’s enough travel bloggers who obsessively count countries. This is about the people that I’ve met in so many places who can’t travel to the same places that I can travel to and passport privilege. Instead of lecturing you on my high horse, I’ve decided to ask someone who this issue truly matters for to speak for themselves to educate you about the realities of passport privilege. This post was cowritten with my friend Lavdi, who holds one of the worst passports in the world: a Kosovo passport. This is about the reality of traveling with a weak passport–and how to battle passport privilege.
I’m so tired of reading how we need to just go travel. I’m a travel blogger, but I was also born in a country with a passport that makes it easy to travel. By being American, I have the ability to visit 160 countries visa-free (or upon arrival) with my American passport. However, my passport means that I can visit numerous countries that the U.S. wouldn’t reciprocate the visa-free policy for the citizens of the same country.
I’ve applied once with the full visa process when applying for a tourist visa for Russia and I remember the reaction when I complained in a travel group about having to list every country that I’ve visited in the last ten years with exact dates. I was mortified when so many others told me that this was required for the visa application for my own country.
The thing is that if you’re from the right country, you get to stand in the visa-free line most of the time. Booking a trip involves finding a good fare, paying for it, packing your bags, and getting on the plane. As soon as you reach the immigration agent, they see your country of origin, smile, and welcome you to their country with minimal questions. That’s how travel has largely been for me and majority of my readers thus far (who come from countries with significant passport privilege). However, this is not how it goes for everyone.
My friend Lavdi has had a very diferent experience than me. She has struggled to travel on one of the worst passports in the world: a Kosovo passport. She gets into forty four countries without applying for a visa. This does not include the EU, US, India, and even nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina. She’s here to talk about her experience traveling with a passport that doesn’t make it easy.
What is passport privilege?
Passport privilege is the ability to travel to many countries without requiring a visa (or getting one upon arrival). This means that you don’t need to worry about the general visa process, having your visa application rejected, and/or waiting to book flights until you were sure that it was possible to visit a country with your passport.
Lavdi’s experience with passport privilege
I have read hundreds of times on other travel bloggers’ posts that you should “just pack and go.” Similarly, some people say “I’m from Planet Earth” when they are asked where are they from. While I’d love to be able to go whenever I felt like it, I wonder if I’m from the same Planet Earth.
Traveling to a Kosovo citizen, in possession of a Kosovo passport only, feels like wedding planning. In fact, sometimes it feels like a wedding would be more easier executed than a long weekend in an EU country. This is because of one main reason that is the political status of Kosovo, namely not being fully recognized internationally and still considered a disputed territory by several countries. 116 countries have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign country until now, however this does not necessarily translate into freedom of movement for citizens of Kosovo. In addition, Kosovo passport is ranked the 86th concerning its power sharing this position with Myanmar (Burma) and Nigeria with only 44 countries where Kosovars can enter visa-free or visa on arrival.
44 countries might seem impressive or good enough in terms of having choices, however, most of the countries where a Kosovar can go visa-free or visa on arrival are the neighboring countries or countries that are far away and require big amounts of money to cover the expenses. The rest are often countries that require a visa process closer to a marathon. Then, there are the countries that a Kosovo citizen can’t enter at all, including India, Philippines, Georgia, and Cuba.
What it’s like applying for visas with a weak passport…
The complete visa application process, depending on the country, might last from two weeks to close to a year (my experience with the German Embassy). The two weeks, interestingly enough, is the application process for a US visa. The online application process, online payment, and online scheduling of an interview for a US visa is the most convenient visa application process that I have undertaken. However, this is due to Kosovo and the United States’ relationship. That said, having a valid US visa and twelve other visas didn’t help with getting anything longer than a Schengen visa valid for a limited period with only 20 days in the Schengen zone from the Greek Liaison Office in Pristina.
Most of the Embassies require the same papers from the applicants, but the application process is completely different. There are embassies which have no scheduled interviews, however people must go early in the morning and wait for the opportunity to submit their papers inside. Similarly, there are embassies that outsource their their services to agencies, however also require an extra fee. There are embassies that require an interview to be scheduled online… and then there are embassies that only invite you for an interview once you submit your paperwork.
Due to Kosovo’s unique status, Kosovo doesn’t have many embassies as well, so travel is required to apply for a visa. This might require travel to Serbia, Romania, Macedonia, or Albania. In some cases, one would have to apply for a visa to apply for the final destination, in the case of applying for a Peruvian visa–in Romania.
All these Embassies ask for many papers, such as bank statements, a birth certificate, a family certificate, a work contract, health insurance, proof that accommodation is booked (and prepaid in some cases), flight ticket/car papers, a tax certificate, and a pension certificate in addition to the visa application form and the two passport pictures. Usually, this takes about two days to get them all ready.
Even if you come prepared, you might be asked questions that seem ridiculous, such as why you chose to apply at one embassy instead of another, and if you might attempt to stay in the EU after the visa expires.
My most recent Schengen visa attempt
My latest experience applying for a Schengen visa started in mid-November 2017 and the appointment was scheduled for February 2018. I collected all the papers required and went to the visa interview. I was told to come back in two weeks (one day before the planned travel day) to get my passport back. In this case, yes, I just packed and went! But this is a rare occasion. As a result, I can’t take advantage of last minute flight deals or vacation offers (besides somewhere local).
Since my visa expires in mid-May, I scheduled a visa appointment at the Hungarian Embassy for this summer. Only five months from the moment that I scheduled it… Not bad, right? 😉
However, the Hungarian visa system has changed–and I’m not sure that the appointment that I booked in February is scheduled anymore. Now, applicants must choose to apply for a single entry visa specific to their trip to Hungary with a strong reason for applying if they’ve been to Hungary before. I’m not sure when I’ll next receive my next visa to the EU at this rate.
On visa denials
It’s truly heartbreaking to hear these stories, however they’re more common than you realize. While traveling, Karen met a lovely Serbian girl working in the tourism industry in Belgrade who dreamed of visiting the United Kingdom and even learned English fluently as she was so obsessed with the UK. She applied for an English workshop in London to improve her English even further. She got denied as she was told that she didn’t have sufficient savings although she had three times what she needed for the trip–and everything booked.
Crushed by this visa denial, she took on a second job to save up more money and aggressively saved by cutting costs. After a few years and 5,000 euros in savings, she applied again to visit the United Kingdom for a week. She got denied again on the grounds that it wasn’t clear to immigration where her funds came from and it seemed suspicious that she had earned so much in such a short time. When we met, she had given up as she wasn’t sure that she’d ever be allowed to visit.
What to remember about passport privilege
I love traveling and and the feeling that I belong to the world. However, it saddens me to say that this is impossible to me, other Kosovars, and millions of others around the world who have weak passports. How can I see the rest of Earth if majority of the countries require invasive, expensive, and difficult visa processes. (This is even true for countries that are only four hours away from me.)
It’s frustrating as I love my country, but I feel that my passport severely limits my dreams of traveling the world. I’ve loved when I’ve traveled abroad and I’ll wait patiently for other countries to allow others to visit without a visa.
What to do about passport privilege when you encounter it
Next time you hear that you should “just pack and go,” remind them that this isn’t for everyone. Acknowledge your privilege to travel easily and there are plenty of people who can’t, simply due to their country of birth. (You can’t decide where you’re born!)
Often when traveling, country counting becomes the way that people make themselves sound cool and although it would be incredible to see the world in person, it’s not a reality for most people. Remind them how many countries you (or a friend with a weak passport) can visit without a visa and ask them how many countries they can visit. For those with weak passports, theirnumber means a lot more than just a count of countries. It also stands for their struggles to see the world, days spent waiting to hear back about visa applications, and hundreds (or thousands) of dollars in visa fees. That number stands for their successes in seeing the world one country at a time.
Many people assume that a passport means the same thing for everyone and it’s often shocking to them to realize that others can’t do the same. Travel is truly a privilege and it’s so important to remember that the ability to go where we want to go isn’t a right.
You can follow Lavdi’s adventures and visa attempts as she tries to to visit as many countries as she can on her blog, Kosovo Girl Travels.