This year, Singapore has the most powerful passport in the world, offering visa-free (or visa on arrival) access to 192 destinations, whereas Afghanistan has the weakest passport. Jenny Southan reports

Whether or not you have to apply for a visa in advance of travelling to a destination determines how “powerful” your passport is. In the case of Afghanistan, citizens can only travel to 27 countries out of 227 globally without a visa (or obtaining one on arrival), meaning their freedoms are severely restricted.

When it comes to the most powerful passports in the world, Japan has been knocked off the top spot on the Henley Passport Index for the first time in five years. This year it is in third place, according to the 2023 ranking, which is based on exclusive and official data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Singapore is now officially the most powerful passport in the world, with its citizens able to visit 192 travel destinations out of 227 around the world visa-free (or with one obtained on arrival).

Germany, Italy, and Spain have all move up into joint second place with easy access to 190 destinations. Japan, Austria, Finland, France, Luxembourg, South Korea and Sweden are in joint third place with access to189 destinations without a prior visa.

The UK appears to have finally turned the corner after a six-year decline, jumping up two places on the latest ranking to fourth place – a position it last held in 2017.

The US, on the other hand, continues its now decade-long slide down the index, plummeting a further two places to eighth place with access to just 184 destinations visa-free.

Both the UK and the US jointly held first place on the index nearly ten years ago in 2014 but have been on a downward trajectory ever since. Singapore, in contrast, has increased its score by 25 over the past ten years, pushing it five places up the ranking.

Afghanistan remains entrenched at the bottom of the Henley Passport Index, with a visa-free access score of just 27, followed by Iraq (29), and Syria (30) – the three weakest passports in the world.

The general trend over the history of the 18-year-old ranking has been towards greater travel freedom, with the average number of destinations travellers are able to access visa-free nearly doubling from 58 in 2006 to 109 in 2023.

However, the global mobility gap between those at the top and bottom of the index is now wider than it has ever been, with top-ranked Singapore able to access 165 more destinations visa-free than Afghanistan.

The most powerful passports in 2023

  1. Singapore (192 destinations)
  2. Germany, Italy, Spain (190 destinations)
  3. Austria, Finland, France, Japan, Luxembourg, South Korea, Sweden (189 destinations)
  4. Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, United Kingdom (188 destinations)
  5. Belgium, Czech Republic, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland (187 destinations)
  6. Australia, Hungary, Poland (186 destinations)
  7. Canada, Greece (185 destinations)
  8. Lithuania, United States (184 destinations)
  9. Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia (183 destinations)
  10. Estonia, Iceland (182 destinations)

The weakest passports in 2023

  1. Afghanistan (27 destinations)
  2. Iraq (29 destinations)
  3. Syria (30 destinations).
  4. Pakistan (33 destinations)
  5. Yemen and Somalia (35 destinations)
  6. Palestine and Nepal (38 destinations)
  7. North Korea (39 destinations)
  8. Bangladesh (40 destinations)
  9. Libya and Sri Lanka (41 destinations)
  10. Kosovo (42 destinations)

Dr Christian H Kaelin, chairman of Henley and Partners and the inventor of the passport index concept, says only eight countries worldwide have less visa-free access today than they did a decade ago while others have been more successful in securing greater travel freedom for their citizens.

He says: “The UAE has added an impressive 107 destinations to its visa-free score since 2013, resulting in a massive leap of 44 places in the ranking over the past ten years from 56th to 12th position. This is almost double the next biggest climber, Colombia, which has enjoyed a jump of 28 places in the ranking to sit in 37th spot.

“Ukraine and China are also among the top ten countries with the most improved rankings over the past decade. Far more than just a travel document that defines our freedom of movement, a strong passport also provides significant financial freedoms in terms of international investment and business opportunities.
“Global connectivity and access have become indispensable features of wealth creation and preservation, and its value will only grow as geopolitical volatility and regional instability increase.”

With regard to the descent of US passport power, Greg Lindsay, leading global strategist and urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, says that from a purely mechanical perspective, “the story is a simple one – by more or less standing still, the US has fallen behind”.

While its absolute score has in fact risen over the last decade, the US has been steadily overtaken by rivals such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. America’s relentless slide down the rankings – and unlikelihood of reclaiming the highest position any time soon – is a warning to its neighbour Canada and the rest of the Anglosphere as well.”

Former career diplomat with the US Department of State and a senior non-resident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Annie Pforzheimer, points out that US’s static state of affairs is likely to remain “due to the lack of a demand from inside the US for a change in policy, the extreme political risk for any group or politician who unwittingly facilitates travel by a terrorist, and the fact that tourism has surged post-pandemic anyway, even with a restrictive visa waiver programme.

“Unfortunately, that status quo, over time, may well contribute to a decline in US soft power if businesses struggle to invite partners to trade shows and meetings, tourists encounter needless application delays and look elsewhere, and open xenophobia erodes the public reputation of the US as a world leader.”

The most “open” and “closed” countries in the world

Henley and Partners has also conducted research into the relationship between a country’s openness to foreigners – how many nations it allows to cross its borders visa-free – and its own citizens’ travel freedom.
The top 20 “most open” countries are all small island nations or African states, except for Cambodia.

There are 12 completely open countries that offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry to all 198 passports in the world (not counting their own), namely: Burundi, Comoro Islands, Djibouti, Guinea-Bissau, Maldives, Micronesia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Samoa, Seychelles, Timor-Leste and Tuvalu.

At the bottom of the Henley Openness Index, four countries score zero, permitting no visa-free access for any passport: namely, Afghanistan, North Korea, Papua New Guinea and Turkmenistan. They are followed by five countries that provide visa-free access to fewer than five other nationalities: namely, Libya, Bhutan, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea and India.

Leading sociologist at Tel Aviv University, Prof Dr Yossi Harpaz, says the data clearly shows that the relationship between travel freedom (Henley Passport Index score) and openness (Henley Openness Index score) is not straightforward but manifests in a complex, non-linear manner. Harpaz says: “Nations’ diplomatic and socio-economic realities and strategic goals significantly impact these factors, resulting in a complex web of interrelations. As the global landscape continues to change, so will these patterns, reflecting the dynamic nature of global mobility.”

Lindsay goes on to explain that while the correlation between a high openness score and high visa-free access score is less evident in the data: “It is notable that Singapore and South Korea – high climbers on the Henley Passport Index over last decade, moving up from sixth and seventh respectively in 2013 to first and third today – boast relatively high degrees of openness, while the US and Canada have slid down as their openness stagnates.”

Developed economies become more unwelcoming

While American passport holders can access 184 (out of 227) destinations visa-free, the US itself only allows 44 other nationalities to pass through its borders visa-free, putting it way down the Henley Openness Index in 78th place.

When comparing the two rankings, the US’s disparity in access versus openness is the second biggest, narrowly trailing only Australia and barely outpacing Canada. New Zealand and Japan also make it into the top five countries with the biggest difference between the travel freedom they enjoy versus the visa-free access they provide to other nationalities. It is interesting to note that these five nations have all either dropped down the Henley Passport Index rankings or remained in the same place over the last ten years.

Professor Peter J Spiro, who holds the Charles Weiner Chair in international law at Temple University, says America’s extension of visa-free access is low, even by the standard of developed economies. He says: “EU states grant visa-free privileges to more than twice the number of states than does the US, for example. For those not enjoying visa exemptions, there are qualitative aspects of the visa system that are impacting US competitiveness in the global system.

“Processing delays, high refusal rates, and a reputation for disagreeable customer service are tarnishing the attractiveness of the US as a destination for those for whom visas are required. For example, prospective international students are increasingly drawn to competitor institutions in Canada, the UK, and the EU over their US counterparts. Add to that the growing reputation of the US as ridden with gun violence and one can project a long-term trajectory in which US global standing further erodes.”

The five countries with the biggest (negative) difference between their own visa-free access and their openness to other nations are Somalia, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Burundi and Nepal, and the top five with the smallest discrepancy between their access and their openness are Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong (SAR China) and Barbados.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have generally displayed higher-than-average shifts towards increased openness, in particular, the UAE’s openness score increased from 58 to 80 since 2018 (22 points) and Oman’s leapt from 71 to 106 (35 points) over the same period.

However, as Dr Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, points out, only the UAE has enjoyed a significant increase in its own travel freedom. “Regional governments can impact the supply-side of the development equation by adjusting visa schemes, enacting reforms, and launching new initiatives.

“However, a greater supply of such offerings does not necessarily guarantee reciprocity or an immediate boost in global demand from individuals and firms. A Schengen-style visa to facilitate smoother travel between GCC countries is reportedly in the works. Such a step would require greater harmonisation of region-wide visa regulations, potentially boosting the openness rankings of several GCC countries and placing the entire region more firmly in the global spotlight.”

A business case for improving passport power

Dr Juerg Steffen, CEO of Henley and Partners, points out in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2023 Q3 that countries with welcoming, open-door visa policies can help forge links with other nations to secure, and in turn grant valuable visa-waivers. He says: “Visa-policy is a significant lever that governments can use to positively impact and improve their passport’s power, making it even more attractive for foreign investors seeking citizenship or residence by investment opportunities.

“For entrepreneurs and businesspeople, improving their economic mobility through visa-free access to more stable economies and key markets that represent a higher proportion of the world’s GDP, provides them with a pathway to lucrative jurisdictions, helps mitigate country- or regional-specific risks, and enables them to build valuable partnerships with industry leaders, and expand their own network of innovators and investors.”