This is not about pandemic travel restrictions. This is not about how expensive Global North destinations are for Thai salaries. This is also not about the dangers of experiencing racial discrimination while traveling in white-majority countries. This is about the endless bureaucratic and legal nightmare that haunts any Thai national who dares to travel abroad: applying for a visa.
As new iterations of “passport indexes” surface each year, they never fail to become a sensation on Thai social media or in the press that the “power” of the Thai passport continues to lag far behind that of other Asian countries or our ASEAN neighbors. According to the Henley Passport Index, the Thai passport ranks 68th for travel convenience with visa-free access to 78 countries. The top three most powerful passports are Asian: Japan tops the list with visa-free access to 193 countries, followed by Singapore and South Korea with 192. The rest of the elite are the usual suspects: European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc. Meanwhile, Thailand even straggles far behind regional neighbors Malaysia and Timor-Leste. Not only do they have visa-free access to 179 and 94 states respectively, but those countries also include attractive travel destinations such as the United Kingdom and the European Schengen area.
Why does this matter? Those who hold powerful passports do not understand the Kafkaesque trials one has to endure to procure a coveted visa stamp. A week-long trip to the Netherlands, for example, could easily set a Thai traveler back at least 5,000 Baht just for the visa alone. While European embassies will state that a Schengen visa is “only” 80 Euros or roughly 2,850 Baht, all Schengen member-states except for Hungary have outsourced visa services in Bangkok to VFS global—a worldwide private company that acts as the middleman between the eager traveler and the embassy. Encapsulating the neoliberalized government, applicants never actually see the face of a single consular official. Instead, they are required to pay for the privilege of lodging their application to a VFS employee, who then sends the paperwork over to the responsible embassy. That service fee, along with add-ons such as text updates, mail delivery, and even an ambiguous “COVID levy,” is how the actual visa cost can easily almost double the embassy sticker price.
This is not to mention the time wasted because of visa applications. A Bangkokian might be able to get away with only taking a half-day off work to visit the VFS application center, but those who live upcountry will have to factor additional time and cost to get to Bangkok—requiring more than a day if the only appointment they can secure is at the crack of dawn. Despite already costing a fortune, these privatized visa appointments are not even easy to come by. Thais wishing to travel to a country that has imposed a visa regime have to plan their trips at least a few months in advance to ensure that they are able to get their visas in time. Before applying, the aspiring traveler must meticulously gather a long list of documents—copies of passports they ever had, any previous visas, proof of employment or business ownership, bank statements, and a planned out travel itinerary with hotel and flight reservations along with taking out a travel insurance policy all done months in advance without guarantee of a visa! This is why you see Thais in immigration lines holding literal binders filled to the brim. We live in a very different world from American college students going to Europe for the summer with a backpack and no return ticket.
If this whole visa process sounds like a humiliating experience to you, that’s the point. Visa regimes are designed to make the applicant feel they are guilty of intending to overstay until they prove otherwise—all based on what passport they hold. If you think this doesn’t sound too bad, imagine repeating the whole process a few dozen times. Schengen member states frequently issue visas valid for the exact number of days requested. If you want to travel to Europe again, just a few months later, you must visit VFS again. The United Kingdom lets applicants choose to pay from 4,000 Baht to apply for a single-entry visa all the way up to around 35,000 Baht for a 10-year multiple-entry visa. In all cases, if you get your visa rejected and still want to travel, you have almost no practical right to appeal, but you could pay the fee and start all over again.
Why is this a problem? Foreign ministries upholding visa regimes will often say that a visa is a privilege granted and not a right. Indeed, the very act of traveling might be a privilege after all. Perhaps some readers lacking in sympathy will shed no tear for a random Thai with wanderlust who dreams of a vacation in Europe but finds the visa process insurmountable. Yet not everyone travels for vacation. A quick search on the internet will return stories of people who are denied visas to travel and find themselves unable to go take care of their sick relatives or join their loved ones for their final moments. There are grandparents who will never get to see the faces of their grandchildren. Is a visa such a big privilege that reigns supreme over any sense of humanity?
Some people also travel for work. As a PhD candidate, I can attest to the importance of attending academic conferences to share your research, establish your place in the profession, and get to know colleagues from all over the world. This meme on Twitter encapsulates well how the experience differs depending on the strength of your passport.
As a historian, my ability to do research also requires travel to specific libraries and archives. I envy my Global North colleagues who can simply jump on a plane anytime without having to always beg a consulate. Visa regimes force scholars born with less fortunate passports to have to pay money to simply do their jobs and waste time dealing with endless bureaucracies instead of creating new knowledge. Even worse, visa regimes can also completely prevent scholars from even having the opportunity.
The travel bans during the pandemic were a temporary leveler. For the first time, Global North citizens briefly understood what travel has always been like for the rest of us. One American boy was temporarily separated from his Canadian girlfriend. A father learned that not being able to travel for a while meant his daughter no longer remembered him. Transatlantic couples found it so difficult to cry over FaceTime screens that they started the #LoveIsNotTourismcampaign. I repeat these stories here out of sympathy. Loved ones were separated for a year by policies intended to prevent and control the spread of a deadly airborne disease. Yet the same sympathy should also apply to people from the Global South who are separated from families, from career progression, from chances of leisure travel, by policies intended to prevent the movement of nationalities considered less desirable. Meanwhile the violence that visa regimes have inflicted and will continue to maim people with powerless passports do not often make it to the New York Times. It also does not often make it to Global South outlets, but because it is simply a story we already know all too well.