Many years ago, when I first went to Australia to study, I had to complete many procedures to apply for a visa, the most troublesome of which was the health examination and biometric information collection process.
I had to go to Ho Chi Minh City to schedule a health check, then schedule another appointment for biometric information collection. It was both time-consuming and costly, and I couldn’t help but feel sad that the Vietnamese passport was so “weak”.
Now, some friends and relatives – knowing that I specialize in foreign policy research and Southeast Asian affairs – occasionally ask me for guidance on visa procedures (I should clarify that I only research policies, not immigration procedures).
Some people ask why Australia has not yet exempted visas for Vietnam as Vietnam-Australia relations continue to develop. Through these exchanges, I realize that the issue of applying for a visa, the “strength” of the Vietnamese passport, is a matter of confusion and even frustration for many people.
In popular rankings of passport “strength”, such as the Henley Passport Index or Arton Passport Index, the Vietnamese passport is usually not highly ranked. The “strength” of a passport is often understood as the ability of the passport holder to travel freely without having to apply for a visa or only need simple procedures. According to Henley’s latest ranking, holders of Vietnamese passports can travel to 55 countries without a visa (Henley counts both e-visas and visas upon arrival).
Many people, including experts, often think that the main reason is that Vietnamese people behave uncivilly and violate local laws when going abroad. This is partly true, but the issue is much more complex. Visa requirements, including exemptions or reductions in procedures, are the direct result of bilateral and multilateral agreements related to visas. These agreements depend on many interrelated factors below.
From my perspective, I can affirm that Vietnam has enough basis to negotiate more beneficial visa agreements for its citizens. Diplomatic relations are one of the top important factors. Countries with strong diplomatic relations or long diplomatic history usually allow their citizens to travel without a visa.
For example, countries in the European Union, Commonwealth and ASEAN have agreements allowing citizens to move freely between member countries for a certain period. Vietnam’s diplomatic position is increasingly high. Bilateral and multilateral relations such as Vietnam-Australia relations are growing strongly. This is an important premise, beneficial for Vietnam when negotiating visa procedures.
The second factor is the issue of security and safety. In the current international context, this is a core issue for visa agreements. Countries may implement or change visa policies based on concerns about crime, terrorism, or illegal immigration. The illegal immigration of some Vietnamese citizens to the UK, Australia, or South Korea in recent years is a major issue.
Vietnam can improve this issue by applying international standards for passport information and technology. Vietnam’s move to embed biometric chips in new passport templates is a correct and internationally standard step, but the lack of birthplace information poses unnecessary obstacles for some countries. Easy access to and exchange of passport holder information will aid customs procedures and help prevent crime and illegal immigration.
Transparency in visa procedures is also a plus. Vietnam could establish an official portal for visa procedures to facilitate foreign citizens when they need to apply for a Vietnamese visa. Providing information in a transparent, organized manner also helps enhance Vietnam’s reputation in the eyes of other countries.
Economic factors significantly impact visa agreements. Developed, wealthy countries often achieve more visa exemption agreements because citizens of these countries are usually not seen as seeking illegal immigration. Moreover, citizens of wealthy countries are often seen as desirable tourists who can contribute to the economy of the destination country.
Therefore, passports from countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the UK, and Germany are always highly ranked and allow travel to many countries. For Vietnam, it’s just a matter of sooner or later. As the economy continues to develop and Vietnamese people travel and invest abroad more frequently, it benefits the “strength” of the Vietnamese passport.
Reciprocity and mutual support are issues of give-and-take, benefiting both sides. This is a basic principle in visa agreements. Simply put, the fact that Vietnam has not yet exempted visas for Australia (Australian citizens must apply for an electronic visa) also affects Australia’s decision not to relax its visa policy for Vietnam. Of course, both sides still have to consider important factors such as security, but they also need to pay attention to the principle of reciprocity.
Politics is also a factor considered. Political disagreements or concerns about political instability can lead a country to decide to impose or change its visa policy with another country. The European Union originally had a visa promotion agreement with Russia, but due to the Ukraine issue, this agreement has been suspended, making it more difficult for Russian citizens to apply for visas to EU countries.
It’s worth noting that differences in political regimes are not necessarily reasons that make visa policies difficult. For example: Citizens of the United Arab Emirates can freely travel to 180 countries, despite having different political regimes with many countries.
Improving the “strength” of passports is a long process influenced by many factors. Every country has citizens who lack awareness and violate laws. Explaining the strength or weakness of passports in terms of blaming bad behavior by some citizens is incomplete and unfair.
The process of enhancing passport power depends much on government efforts, from macro issues such as improving national standing to specific tasks such as negotiating more beneficial agreements for citizens.
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The Power of a Passport