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On Gratitude, Anger and Visas for Europeans

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I don’t wake up every morning thinking, “I’m so lucky to be a Westerner and to have a French and a Canadian passport.” Really, I don’t.

But this time I did. I had two visitors, one a Westerner, the other a young man from Myanmar, who almost didn’t make it because… he isn’t a Westerner.

His initial trip was to have taken him through London but after three weeks and a $140 visa fee he still hadn’t heard back from British authorities. Cancel London.

London… I’ll see you another time!

He was more fortunate with his Schengen visa, which came through after a few days – and after various letters of recommendation were sent on his behalf from upstanding citizens of upstanding countries.

Even so, his visa is strict: it begins on the day he lands, and ends the day his flight is scheduled to take him back to Yangon. Most Westerners, on the other hand, get an automatic 90-day Schengen visa.

Should he happen to make friends or fall in love with a place and want to stay a few more days that would be impossible. Penalties for overstaying a Schengen visa can be harsh, from fines (hundreds of euros, depending on the country) to a written warning (it goes into your file and might get you turned down next time you apply for a visa) to deportation and a future ban.

This brings to memory a scene I experienced in a consulate not many years ago. As I was politely interviewed for a visa by a smiling clerk, a young man with dark skin sitting next to me was getting the third degree, with incredible rudeness, an automatic criminal by color.

The intense shame and anger I felt that day came rushing back the other night, as my friends told me about their visa adventure.

I forget, as a white European, how easy it is for me to see the world and what an impossible dream it can be for others. I don’t know whether to be grateful this is so, or to be angry, or both.

Visas for Europeans – by the numbers

If you’re from the UK, Finland, Sweden, Germany or the United States, you can visit 174 countries without a visa. If you’re from Denmark or Canada, that’s 173. If you’re from Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, France, Japan, Portugal, Spain or South Korea, that’s 172 (granted, there are two Asian countries in this group, but they are rich, and money talks). Next in line are Ireland, Norway and Austria. And so on.

What if you’re from Nigeria? You can visit 37 countries without a visa – most of them in Africa, and many of the rest too tiny to matter. From Cuba? A dozen, and some of those aren’t really visa-free because you’ll have to buy a visa on arrival. And out of curiosity, what about Myanmar? About half a dozen, although visa-free travel to the other members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should be available soon. That will only ben an extra ten, by the way, and travel to Indonesia and the Philippines, two of the members, is already authorized.

Bottom line, my friend could travel easily to six countries, and I could travel to 172 or 173, depending on which passport I used.

Take the United States – an example and by no means an exception. It operates on the assumption that most people from non-Western countries will try to stay in the US. I’m sure some will. But is that a justification to reject more than half the applications from Ghana or Mali?

Travelers from countries with a reputation for being partial to terrorism also face these issues when traveling. Not everyone in Pakistan or Libya is a terrorist.

Your personal respectability and integrity don’t matter. You can be a doctor or a lawyer or a judge but the label ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Nigerian’ sits brightly on your forehead, like a fluorescent stamp at a disco.

Now admittedly, in these times of economic hardship, immigration is a hot-button issue. Citizens of many wealthy countries are terrified that foreigners who work for less will garner the few available jobs and undercut the local population. Higher salaries are appetizing, and given poverty and conflict in many countries it’s not surprising people want to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, legally or not.

That’s an argument – and an important one – for another day. Right now, I’m talking about travel and tourism, about everyday citizens, students, teachers, engineers, waitresses, managers – anyone and everyone who earns a salary back home, loves his or her country, plans to go back in a few weeks, and has saved long and hard for the vacation of a lifetime to Paris, or Rome, or New York. These are the ones getting turned away – not the wealthy deans of drug trafficking or high-level money launderers whose tremendous wealth is usually welcome, legal or not.

I know the system isn’t fair, but at times I need to remind myself and others who travel that some of us – particularly white Westerners – have it easy. We don’t think twice about getting a visa, other than cost. Even the cost, relatively speaking, is low. Spending $140 on a visa may gall me and even hurt my wallet but it will have a far greater effect on my friend from Myanmar, a country in which average yearly income is just over $1000 a year (compared with $40,000 in France and well over $50,000 in the USA).

Beyond the cost, it’s about humiliation. Potential tourists from ‘less desirable’ countries will be asked questions I wouldn’t find acceptable, their most intimate thoughts dredged up by skilful questioning, their motives instantly suspect, their money, although real, not good enough.

So I woke up feeling lucky. Or angry. Or perhaps a bit of both.

I’ll get over until next weekend – when some Cuban and South African friends come to visit. And we have a nice conversation about their visa tribulations. That should be fun.




  1. Caroline Achieng Otieno on September 8, 2014 at 9:57 am

    I am resident in the Netherlands but holding a Kenyan passport, I still get held back at immigration when traveling, embarrassingly even within the European Union..

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 8, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      Yes, it’s not always about the passport…

  2. hydrabadchik on September 9, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    I joined a black travellers forum a year after moving to India for work. I discovered that no, I was not crazy, nor was I imagining the reactions I was seeing.

    Outside of the US, my white and light skinned colleagues got a very different reception at airport security and immigration. Not every black traveller who posted told the same story – but many had similar ones.

    They also mentioned that outside of the US they sometimes faced rude treatment – that reversed or at least tempered when the officiant saw a US passport.

  3. Annabel Haslop on September 11, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    And when we implement new visa / immigration requirements, we are told that we’re being unreasonable, although we need visas, even transit visas for example when flying via London to elsewhere!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 12, 2014 at 12:01 am

      Countries that tighten visa requirements often do it in retaliation for unreasonable policies towards them… In France at one point we required visas of Americans, Canadians and Australians. This came into effect when those countries tightened their own visa rules…

  4. Dan @ A Cruising Couple on September 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    Great article! It is easy to forget how fortunate we are to travel so extensively with relative ease. We know so many amazing people who can’t get visas simply because of where they are from.

  5. Tessa on September 13, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you for an insightful post, Leyla. As a Filipina, I am very familiar with visa and immigration woes.

  6. the lazy travelers on September 14, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    i (ashley) just spent a year in france while my husband pursued his mba, and it was so crazy to see the visa issues that his classmates from around the world had to go through, for the exact reasons you listed. it’s just so insane, and really sad. definitely put our own visa stress into perspective–the french have a way of making the littlest things the biggest headaches, but in the end, it was nothing compared to what friends from india had to deal with to get there.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 14, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      Yes, France is complex – still, I’ve seen far more difficult – the US for example is hugely difficult if you’re not from a similar country… and Russia, oh Russia…

  7. Stacey @ Onetravelsfar on October 4, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Awesome post! As a New Zealand citizen I’ve got it pretty easy when it comes to visas as well. I recently left China after living there for 7 months, and while I found the visa process to be annoying, as a westerner I simply had to pay for a visa agent to bribe the authorities (I didn’t have a degree and so couldn’t legally get a Z visa), and it was done for me. Meanwhile my friends who were far more qualified but from countries like Pakistan had huge headaches and problems with their visas.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      Exactly! I have friends from plenty of countries going through a difficult patch, but they’re all tarred with the same brush. I don’t know the solution – how do you balance security concerns with discrimination?

  8. Allison on October 7, 2014 at 12:58 am

    Wow, according to the numbers I’m pretty lucky with my German and Canadian passport!
    I remember one of my trips to the United States of America when I was a kid. My dad, brother, sister and I passed right on through customs because we were Canadians. Unfortunately, my mom had to head off to fill out extra paperwork and get her fingerprints scanned because she’s German.

    Of course though when you go to some countries in Southeast Asia your “westernness” can actually cause you grief (certainly not as rough as the experiences your friends shared with you when trying to visit Europe though).

    When going from Thailand to Cambodia westerners are expected to pay “tea money” to the guards (200 baht). They also try to get you to buy a fake visa at an office away from the border for crazy prices. Thank goodness I chose to get my visa online and managed to skip all the craziness.

    Instead I ran into trouble when travelling from Thailand to Laos. I tried to save some money by using my German passport (30 American dollars for a visa as opposed to $42 for my Canadian passport) but they wouldn’t have it. I suppose that may have been a paperwork thing, so fine. However I wasn’t too happy when the guards insisted I pay 1800 baht (about $56) when I told them I had no American money. That’s tremendous in Thai currency terms!!

    Fortunately when I came to the United Kingdom I had my German passport to come live here. I keep hearing stories of Canadians trying to come live in England and finding it near impossible!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 7, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      Thanks Allison – there’s always a country in which you’ll be the outsider or the unwanted or the suspected… unfortunately. I’m not sure how I feel about a borderless world but I have to say it’s a pleasure traveling in Europe right now with few borders – a bit like certain Asians probably feel in ASEAN countries and so on. What I’d like is a level playing field but that’s unrealistic, at least for now.

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