Brace Yourself for a Weak US Passport - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

The pandemic has made things worse, but the decline of the U.S. passport began earlier.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • More and more nations are restricting access to U.S. citizens because of America’s handling of the pandemic.
  • The slide began before the crisis, though, because of the U.S.’ own changing policies toward the world — and that’s set to continue even after the pandemic is over.

Moments after their private jet landed in Sardinia in July, five passengers from Colorado were turned away from the Mediterranean island. In Canada, two Americans were heavily fined for not adhering to their northern neighbor’s entry restrictions. And in Mexico, governors are asking the central government to ensure tighter restrictions along the U.S. border to stop Americans from entering. 

By now, it’s almost a meme — the U.S. may be the world’s most powerful nation, but thanks to Washington’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries don’t want American visitors. The European Union left the U.S. off a list of countries whose residents can visit Europe again, and the Bahamas has also banned American travelers. 

Look deeper, though, and you’ll see that the problem is even graver, according to the Henley Passport Index, which compares the strengths of different passports computed in terms of the number of countries that allow visa-free travel to holders of that passport. The latest rankings, released in July, show that:

The U.S. passport has slipped from being the most powerful in 2014 to having 15 countries ahead of it in 2020 — and that doesnt take into account the recent travel restrictions due to the coronavirus.

In other words, even without the pandemic, the privilege of a U.S. passport, often considered a golden ticket to visa-free travel in much of the world, has been fading. The pandemic and the Trump administration’s inept handling of it are only aggravating the crisis.  

These limitations can be painful for Americans, many of whom have never experienced them before, says Dimitry Kochenov, chair of European constitutional law and citizenship at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Kochenov is also co-creator of the Quality of Nationality Index, which looks at the benefits different citizenships bring, and is the author of the recently published book Citizenship. “They’ve been confronted with this reality that is well-known for holders of most other passports around the world,” he says.

So why is the power of the U.S. passport in decline? In general, while citizens from wealthier or geopolitically stronger nations have easier travel access than those from poorer or smaller countries, the recent rankings reflect the shift in values toward the world that America has witnessed, especially under the Trump administration.

Reciprocity is an important factor in how countries treat citizens of others, Kochenov says. The European Union, for example, allows people of more nationalities in without a visa than the U.S. does. “As a result, Europeans can also travel around the world without it,” he says. 

A TSA officer checks a man's ID at a screening checkpoint at

A TSA officer checks ID at a checkpoint at Orlando International Airport. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The nations ahead of America in the latest Henley rankings — Japan is first, followed by Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain, Luxembourg, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands and Ireland — have all underscored their commitment to globalist policies. Japan, whose citizens can travel to 191 nations without a visa, offers the same privilege to visitors from 68 countries.

The U.S., by contrast, has imposed travel restrictions on multiple countries over the past three years, starting with President Donald Trump’s 2017 ban on all visitors — even those with valid visas — from seven Muslim-majority nations. It offers visa-free entry access to most citizens from 39 nations.

To be sure, as Paddy Blewer, public relations director at Henley & Partners, diplomatically explains, “you can fall in an index” because of “other countries doing better” — even if you haven’t slipped up.

But there are other factors at play. For decades, countries have allowed easy travel access to Americans in part because of hopes for greater investments from America. Now, with the Trump administration using both carrot and stick to stop U.S. businesses from investing overseas, that incentive has been reduced.

In contrast, Japan’s openness is working in the country’s favor. “The nature of visa-free travel is defined by diplomatic and trading engagement between two sovereign states,” says Blewer. “It is in the interest of many southern states to have visa-free travel with Japan.”

And with the pandemic showing up American travelers as greater health risks than ever before, there’s even less reason to welcome them — especially for smaller, more vulnerable nations, says John Torpey, a professor of sociology and history at City University New York who has written extensively about passports and citizenship. “The mishandling of the coronavirus crisis by the U.S. makes smaller countries wary,” he says. “It’s just not worth the trouble to allow American travelers. In case these travelers infect any of the locals, it will become a major burden on them logistically.”

The result? Expect traveling abroad on a U.S. passport to only get harder, even after the pandemic.

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