Second-sort citizens: how we travel on a third world passport

But indeed, I think, we all belong to any countries. And perhaps this habit of much travel, and the engendering of scattered friendships, may prepare the euthanasia of ancient nations.

— Robert Louis Stevenson ‘Silverado Squatters’

When somebody assures you that ‘third world’ is not a derogatory term but a scientific/economic/development one, I call bullshit.

I spoke to several travellers from various countries around the world who live on a less ‘popular’ third world passport and even try to travel with one. Hey wait, I am one of them!



There are rankings somewhere on the internet that grade world passports according to their ‘power’, depending on how many countries you can enter without a visa, with a stamp on arrival, or even with your national ID instead of the passport. On GoEuro website Scandinavia is winning, with Sweden and Finland occupying the top 2 positions. The GoEuro ranking is based not only on visa-free access to the biggest number of countries, but also the cost of the passport itself and the time it takes to get one. However, I think, the ranking is omitting one important non-legal aspect here, which allowed US and UK passports rank quite high: the amount of sh*t certain passport-holders get for being from their country. As far as I know, American foreign policy ends up costing its citizens quite a lot in visas: to travel to Sudan, Americans pay $200 for transit ($99 everyone else), in Iran, they cannot travel independently and have to pay for a whole tour package, North Korea gives them a special pain in the ass to visit the country, and Cuba – well, the ice seems to be moving and thawing with this one. On the other hand, most NATO-friendly countries welcome Americans with their, ehm, pockets wide open. Still, I heard that many Americans abroad pretend to be Canadians to avoid prejudice in certain parts of the world. Israeli passport is quite shite too, because half of the Muslim countries are closed for it, but the rest of the world welcomes Israelis without visas. Chinese and Taiwanese passports have a beef between themselves, mainly because Chinese government still pretends that Taiwan is their overseas territory. Go figure, politics.

Another ranking, based exclusively on the number of countries a passport holder can visit without a visa or with visa on arrival, puts UK and USA at the top, with South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, and Luxembourg in close following. UK and US aside, let us look at other top countries and try to think off the top of the head what we know about them:

South Korea: Ganghnam style, food, and creepy neighbouring North Korea

Germany: takes in a lot of migrant workers, beer

France: wine and cheese

Italy: wine and cheese, loud

Sweden: takes in most of migrants, IKEA

Singapore: dystopian squeaky clean Asian megacity where chewing gum is outlawed

Denmark: small country, LEGO, high happiness ranking

Finland: forests and elks

Netherlands: coffee shops and many non-profits

Luxembourg: wat?

As you can see, with the exception of Luxembourg, which nobody outside of Europe can pinpoint on the map, all the top-ranking countries have a rather nice reputation in the eyes of the world. They don’t like bombing stuff, they invest or try investing in third world economies, and they have their own life sorted out. No wonder that their citizens get visas easily, and immigration officers smile at them.


Putin and hookers

In the summer 2008 I was going on my first solo trip abroad.

‘You going to a summer school?’

‘Yes, to study Irish.’

The immigration officer grinned. I was afraid he’d ask me to show large amounts of money as a guarantee that I’ll not be begging in the street. But he probably thought: ’Yeah, Irish language school. She can’t possibly be making it up’.

Not even 20 years old, a confused philology student in Irish studies, I applied for the visa to stay on the Emerald isle for a couple of summer months to attend the Oideas Gael language school in Donegal. Unlike most of my fellow countrymen, I was going to an Irish Gaelic summer school, not an English course, and it took me a few weeks to explain to the school how I needed an ‘invitation letter’ in order to apply for the visa. Nobody’s ever heard of such a ridiculous thing as invitation letter. The embassy gave me a hard time and held on to my passport for a month before finally giving it back to me with a visa for the exact amount of days I’d asked: middle of July to the end of August.

Now I need to explain that for us, people with ‘third world’ passports, getting your first visa calls for hardcore celebration and fireworks. Rejections are not unheard of, especially among students who cannot show ‘evidence that they will return back to their home country’, and when you get a nod of approval from some unknown visa officer it certainly raises your self-esteem a little bit. ‘I am not a stateless and homeless wilding anymore, I can now travel all the way to King’s Landing!’

Since then, I certainly have gained a few ‘credibility points’ in the eyes of international embassies, with my passport full of most random stamps and visas from Asia, Africa, and Europe. I certainly became less broke since my student years, too, but going to a European foreign embassy is still a nerve wrecking process, especially because I do not have a formal ‘job’ except for regular freelancing gigs.

Funny thing, the ghost of my country still haunts me every now and then. A few years ago I was almost turned around from North Cyprus and forced to buy a return ticket, because a lot of sex workers from my country travel there to stay and work illegally in casinos. I was questioned, very lengthly, by a mean immigration officer in Sri Lanka, who probably thought I had a PhD in prostitution. Sex work being the marginalised and illegal type of entrepreneurship in most of the world, also happens to be a popular business for human traffickers in my country. On the other hand, carrying this connotation, in a way, diminishes the burden of political crap tied to my passport.

Another fun fact: two years ago, taking a train back to my hometown, I had a rather bizarre dialogue with an immigration officer of my own country. He spent a solid 10 minutes browsing through my passport coloured with visas of everything from Myanmar to Somaliland.

‘Are you a journalist or what?’

‘Or what. I just like to travel.’

’There is no space to put a stamp in here.’

’There is half a page right there, I deliberately left it empty to be able to get a return stamp.’

More grumbling noises emerged from his mouth or some other cavity.

’Next time you should not be allowed in, with a passport like that’.

Aww, that’d be a tragedy.


The suspiciousness scale

For a while, I thought that my passport was pretty bad for someone who dreams of seeing the world and becoming a writer. I stopped whining about it around the time I started my trip along the ‘Axis of Evil’. First of all, passing through Azerbaijan, I realised that, unlike most travellers, I get to travel visa and hassle-free in all the ex-USSR countries, including such obscure and weird places as Transnistria.

And then I made friends in Iran and Pakistan, and among them were many extremely talented and intelligent individuals who were eager to see the world and escape the constraints of their country’s mentality. They even had a joke about how Pakistanis go to party: ‘Let’s have a blast… and hope it’s not our last!’ It takes some badassery to joke about terrorism when you come from a terrorism-labelled country.

In case you do not know, Iranian and Pakistani passports hold ranking number 70 and 71, respectively, according to their travelling convenience. Add to this all the bad connotations these two countries hold for the majority of people in the West, and, well, no wonder you do not meet too many Iranians or Pakistanis who travel the world.

‘I got a German visa by miracle when I first went travelling to Europe: one of my friend’s relatives worked at the consulate, so there was this personal factor that did the job,’ one friend told me. She returned to Pakistan, then married a European citizen, but got denied a visa when tried applying as a single Pakistani female (a spouse visa would have taken much longer to process, and the couple wanted to travel to Europe at a short notice). The reason for denial, of course, was that a single female would travel to Europe to look for a husband and reap the country’s benefits. ‘Yes, that might be true in many cases but what these visa monkeys don’t understand is that some people just like to travel for the f*ck of it, you know!’ I cannot express it in better words.

Several of my Iranian female friends managed to travel to Turkey and settle in Istanbul, as Turkey is one country that allows Iranians a visa-free stay for 90 days with the possibility of getting a residency. But when it comes to Europe, both male and female travellers get a lot of mean questions at the border control, even having obtained a valid entry visa.

Here is one dialogue at the German immigration I heard about from an Iranian male friend:

‘You are Iranian’.

‘Yes, but I live in Istanbul.’

‘What do you do there?’

‘I study at the University’.

‘What do you study?’


Officer takes a stamp and shoves it into the guy’s face:

‘What material is this made of?’

‘I am not an x-ray machine, really…’

Officer looks at a tall blonde woman standing in the queue:

‘Do you find her attractive?’

Awkwardness ensues.

‘I don’t know… Maybe?’

He was allowed to enter the country in the end, but the immigration officer might never find out what his stamp is made of.

2013-04-16 19.52.35

The age of black-and-white television

‘Colour does matter, I am telling you,’ says my CS host in Sweden. He had cycled here from Italy for the beginning of his academic year in a Swedish University. His passport is Ethiopian. ‘I had a valid visa, and even an official letter from my University with me, and I was cycling all the way from the south to the north of Europe, just for the fun of it. I wanted to see Europe. Practically in every city the police would stop me for a routine passport check’.

Another Ethiopian friend of mine travels to Sweden and Netherlands quite often, but having a full-time job in her country makes her less suspicious than a poor student. ‘I never had any major problems with getting a visa. As for the passport control… To be honest, I think I look too confident to them, so I never had issues’. Confidence, indeed, is everything. Knowing this girl in person, I imagine she can roll up to an immigration officer with a face that shows him who’s the boss, instantly.

To visit his girlfriend in Finland, a Ugandan friend of mine had to travel to Nairobi – the nearest Finnish consulate in the region. He got the visa once, spent some good time among trees and elks. Trying to apply for a tourist visa to Finland again, he was denied and not given any particular reason – because consulates are allowed to do so. He ended up moving to live outside Uganda, in a country with better reputation, but still gets random questions from immigration officers when travelling abroad: ‘How come you are Ugandan but live in Qatar?’

Coming from a long line of immigrants

Everyone loves Southeast Asia. The sweaty paradise of gap year students, horny rich old men, and people who simply love tropical islands.

There is nothing really bad in the world’s opinion about Southeast Asia: as long as these countries do not export terrorists or hookers, the wide world is okay with them. Philippines, for instance, for a very long time has been a country of emigration, as millions of its citizens were going to work overseas, through legal or illegal channels.

‘How is travelling going for you?’ I asked a friend of mine from Manila.


She has been to many countries in Southeast Asia, and planning to visit Brazil sometime soon, because it is one of those countries that allow Filipinos a visa-free entry. The stigma of being a potential migrant house cleaner still sticks to many Filipinos, but browse the internet travelverse – and you see how many wanderlusting travel bloggers come from the Philippines (although I suspect many of them hold double citizenship). Filipino passport holders, although being considered a ‘third world’ crowd, are viewed as less suspicious than people from Muslim or African countries. Or USSR.

Imaginary countries

One of my favourite stories about coming from an obscure country was actually told by a person from… the Isle of Man. In the old times, having a Manx sailor aboard your ship was thought to bring good luck for the voyage. In our days, the tiny green island in the Irish sea is hardly known to anybody, and the trick with Manx passport is that, although the island belongs to the British monarchy, it is not formally a part of Great Britain or the EU. At the same time, Manx passport has a cover similar to British that says ‘British Islands, Isle of Man’, which surely must confuse the hell out of immigration officers. ‘I remember being called to a special room by security, a couple of times in different countries. They didn’t believe the passport was legit, haha,’ my acquaintance told me.

Ridiculously enough, we travel to escape stereotypes, but end up carrying the labels of our country along with us.

In a perfect world, there would be such document as a ‘Traveller’s Pass’. It is like a diplomatic passport, but without diplomatic immunity, drama and responsibilities. I don’t know, are people with diplomatic passports even allowed to go bunjee jumping or riding a dune buggy? The Traveller’s Pass would be issued to people who want to see the world through their unbiased eyes and tell the story when they return back home, or find home somewhere else.

Everyone knows that having two passports is awesome. If I were to choose a passport freely, I’d go with something inconspicuous yet useful, like Taiwan. Taiwan has never done any nasty things to anybody. Or Uruguay, because José Mujica is an ex-president anybody would be glad to brag about. I could probably go with a Bangladeshi, Maldives or Indian citizenship for a short term, because, unlike every other country in the world, Bangladeshis, Maldivians, Indians are allowed to travel freely to – Bhutan. Mutha-uking Bhutan!!! I will perhaps become Chinese in the last years of my life, just for the sole purpose of living in Tibet.

But for now, I should probably just get a Principality of Sealand ID card. Not for travelling, just for funsies.


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