As we enter the new year, the latest results from the Henley Passport Index provide fascinating insights into a world characterized by extraordinary upheaval and offer a revealing look at what lies ahead. For the fifth year running, Japan crowns the index of World’s Most Powerful Passports, which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and ranks all the world’s 199 passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa.
Japanese citizens can now visit an astonishing 193 destinations out of 227 visa-free, while those of South Korea and Singapore, which are tied in 2nd place, enjoy a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 192. Germany and Spain are joint 3rd, with visa-free access to 190 destinations worldwide. The UK and the US remain in 6th and 7th places, with scores of 187 and 186, respectively, and appear increasingly unlikely to regain the top spot they jointly held nearly a decade ago.
Afghanistan reamins firmly at the bottom of the Henley Passport Index with a score of just 27 — 166 fewer visa-free destinations than Japan — the widest global mobility gap in the index’s 18-year history. Chairman of Henley & Partners, Dr. Christian H. Kaelin, says the firm’s latest research into the link between visa-free travel and global economic access unpacks what passport power means in concrete financial terms. “For global citizens, a better measure of economic mobility and fiscal opportunity afforded by their passports is to look at the percentage share of global GDP accessible to them visa-free. Our latest research into how much global economic access each passport provides is a useful tool for investors and gives new insight into the ever-widening inequality and wealth disparity that defines our world.”
Direct link between passport strength and economic power
On a macro level, the new study by Henley & Partners reveals that just 6% of passports worldwide give their holders visa-free access to more than 70% of the global economy. And only 17% of countries give their passport holders visa-free access to more than four-fifths of the world’s 227 destinations.
The Japanese passport gives visa-free access to 85% of the world and, collectively, these countries account for a whopping 98% of the global economy (Japan’s own GDP contribution is around 5%). In contrast, the Nigerian passport at the lower end of the index provides visa-free access to only 46 destinations (20% of the world), which account for just 1.5% of global GDP. The lowest ranked Afghanistan passport provides visa-free access to just 12% of the world and less than 1% of global economic output.
Dr. Areef Suleman, Director of Economic Research and Statistics at the Islamic Development Bank Institute, says cross-country visa-free access to more stable economies helps investors mitigate country- or jurisdiction-specific risks. “In general, greater access to the world’s economic output is advantageous as it expands the basket of products available to any individual. While this is also attainable through international trade, the options with physical access are far greater, extending to the use of services that are non-exportable such as better-quality education and healthcare.”
In terms of percentage of global GDP, the US and China have the lion’s share, with 25% and 19%, respectively, but American passport holders can access a further 43% of the world’s economic output visa-free, bringing their total to 68%, whereas Chinese passport holders can access only an additional 7% visa-free, taking their total to just 26% of global GDP.
Looking at another set of comparisons, South Korea and Russia have similar national GDPs of around 1.9% of global economic output. However, South Korea has a visa-free score of 192, giving its passport holders access to 81% of global GDP, while Russia has a score of just 118, providing its passport holders with access to only 19% of the world’s economy. India fares even worse, despite having the world’s fifth-largest economy: its passport holders can access just 59 destinations worldwide and only 6.8% of global GDP, of which the country’s own GDP accounts for around half.
Prof. Trevor Williams, former chief economist at Lloyd’s Bank Commercial Banking, says the research proves the causal relationship between the ability to travel, foreign investment in a country, increased trade, and economic growth. “These links are mutually reinforcing and agglomerative. Skills and talent go where there is the ability to work, invest, and travel, attracting others wishing to do the same and creating a positive loop.”
The war in Ukraine: shockwaves continue
The Ukraine war is yet to have a significant impact on the Henley Passport Index scores of Russia and Ukraine, with both countries retaining roughly the same position ‘on paper’ since the invasion nearly a year ago. Russia is currently ranked 49th with a score of 118, while Ukraine sits 13 places above, ranking 36th with a score of 144. However, due to airspace closures and sanctions, Russian citizens are effectively barred from traveling throughout most of the developed world, with the marked exceptions of the UAE and Türkiye, which have become focal points.
Ukrainians, on the other hand, have been granted the right to live and work in the EU for up to three years under an emergency plan in response to what has become Europe’s biggest refugee crisis this century. Already one of the biggest climbers on the Henley Passport Index, moving up 24 places over the past decade, Ukraine would likely break into the Top Ten World’s Most Powerful Passports if it were to join the EU. Negotiations for membership are due to begin in earnest in the next few months after the EU approved Ukraine’s application for EU candidate status in record time last June.
Leading financial journalist and author, Misha Glenny, says it’s hard to overestimate how the continuing conflict will dictate global politics and the economy throughout 2023. “It’s a brutal ground war in which one combatant possesses more nuclear warheads than any other country on the planet. The Russian and Ukrainian economies exert a huge influence over two vital sectors of the global economy — energy and agriculture. This has been reflected in steep price rises, turning a manageable inflationary struggle into a dangerous one.”
While Asian countries still dominate the very top of the index, the growing passport strength of Gulf states has been identified as a key trend in the coming year. The UAE has climbed an astonishing 49 places over the past 10 years. Ranking 64th in 2013, with a visa-free score of just 72, the UAE now sits in 15th place, with a score of 178 and access to nearly 70% of global GDP. Analysts anticipate that Kuwait and Qatar will sign a visa-free deal with the EU this year — a move that will dramatically enhance their Henley Passport Index scores.
10 World’s Most Powerful Passports in 2023:
- Singapore, South Korea
- Germany and Spain
- Finland, Italy and Luxembourg
- Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden
- France, Ireland, Portugal, United Kingdom
- Belgium, New Zealand, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Norway, United States
- Australia, Canada, Greece, Malta
- Hungary, Poland
- Lithuania and Slovakia