Passport Politics


I noticed recently my passport was due for renewal. With an immigration debate raging in Washington, I realized how lucky I am to have a U.S. passport to renew.

According to the Henley & Partners Passport Index, which ranks countries by their passport holders’ ability to travel unrestricted, the U.S. ties for fourth among the world’s nations, with visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 174 countries (Germany is first, with 177; Afghanistan comes in last, affording its citizens entry to just 24 countries).

In travel terms, American citizenship confers elite status — a term that carries more weight when it comes to crossing borders, and a concept travelers would do well to understand. Since most Americans have never had to deal with visas or immigration, many are unaware of just how “status” works.

Generally speaking, people need a reason for being in any given country. That reason is formally known as status, and it documents who’s where and why. Citizenship is one kind of status; resident, tourist, student, refugee and temporary worker are among the others.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider the so-called Dreamers, children who were brought to America illegally as minors and have no official status in the U.S. They are neither citizens nor legal residents nor immigrants nor tourists (though DACA legislation authorizes them to work). Others in the non-status category include those who overstay their student, tourist or work visas and once had legal status here, but no longer do.

To set foot in a country where we don’t have citizenship or resident status, we generally either need visas or, as Americans, travel visa-free as tourists, by virtue of our country’s accords with foreign governments. North Korea is the only nation from which we are outright banned (though the State Department advises against travel to various other usual-suspect nations).

At a moment when the pathway to that coveted passport hangs in the balance for legions of immigrants, current and future, it’s worth reflecting on the marvelous fortune that allows Americans — by accident of birth or circumstance — to explore the world diplomatically unhindered.

Israelis (No. 23 on the Henley & Partners Index), for instance, are barred from more than a dozen Muslim-majority nations, from Malaysia to Sudan. Many of those same countries will not allow entry to travelers whose passports bear Israeli stamps, which is why stamping is pretty rare at Israeli borders nowadays.

Where Americans do require a visa — to visit Russia and Brazil, for instance — they generally receive it. It’s a bothersome, often costly formality.

But would-be travelers from many, many countries are routinely denied tourist visas to the U.S. and elsewhere, for reasons that can appear arbitrary (but often correlate to whether compatriots collectively tend to overstay).

My Texan cousin once got fed up with her mother being denied a tourist visa from Mexico, and finally applied for a very expensive, very time-consuming green card for her mom, just so the latter could finally visit. I know plenty more stories like that.

As I set out to renew my passport, I think about my cousin, the Dreamers and the European Jews whose papers would not permit them to flee oppressive regimes, war and the Holocaust.

As I set out to renew my passport, I think about my cousin, the Dreamers and the European Jews whose papers would not permit them to flee oppressive regimes, war and the Holocaust. About the Soviet Jews who weren’t allowed to emigrate. About my own great-grandparents a century earlier, who fled Russia in the dead of night, amid gunfire.

I think about my husband growing up behind the Iron Curtain, tagging along on work trips abroad with his mother or his father, but never with both; the family wasn’t allowed to leave together.

Some years later, my cousin encountered the inverse scenario at the Mexican border, en route to a family holiday where she and her husband were traveling separately. Several forfeited plane tickets later, she found out the hard way that one parent cannot take a child out of the U.S. without documented permission from the other parent — a law all travelers would do well to heed.

Her case illustrates the importance of knowing one’s status, regardless of nationality. Documentation and visa requirements change frequently; if you’re headed abroad, do your homework, then verify your passport is valid for at least another six months (remember, while yours lasts 10 years, your kids’ passports expire after five).

The State Department offers a variety of expedited passport options. Rush orders are only $60 extra — a bargain considering the flexibility they may afford. You can schedule same-day passport renewal at the government passport agencies in major cities, with proof that you’ll depart on an already-booked trip within two weeks.

Paying for a plane ticket when your passport’s expired feels unsettling, but for me, the safest option involves never putting that little blue booklet in the mail. (The $60 rush charge means you don’t have to send your passport in the mail somewhere.) After all, it’s the virtual key to 174 destinations — a big privilege, for a small fee.