10 Things People Don’t Know About My (Less Than Privileged) Passport
I have a Colombian passport. My friends know that mostly because I always make a point of introducing myself as Colombian. I’m short, my hair is black and curly, I look pretty Colombian, in my opinion, like, I can pull off the title.
“Why do I have this super Americanized accent, you ask?” “Oh, well…” I’ll say, acting shocked at the, not at all expected, question *eye roll* and I tell them the whole story of my parents emigrating, applying for asylum, living a life in limbo for seven years and then getting denied. Someone give me a book deal!
What people don’t jump to is that, as a result, that means I do not have an American passport. In fact, I can’t travel to the United States right now at all. Unless I get approved for a tourist visa, but I’ve been denied twice in the past three years. In fact, I haven’t been there in over 10 years. This is slightly frustrating because during that time I’ve visited 15 other countries, give or take. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
I’m writing this because there’s a lot that people who have really nice shiny passports (I’m looking at you Japan, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, etc.) don’t realize about people who don’t have one. So here are 10 things people don’t usually know about my passport privilege (or lack thereof). Sure, it’s not your fault! Why would you have to know that other people can’t just book a flight or see their family at a whim? So here’s your daily dose of privilege education in the form of a fun, easy-to-digest “Top 10” list.
10. Passport Power is Real
I’m not making this up, guys. There’s an actual list of the most powerful passports and you can see how yours compares to other countries as far as the number of countries you can visit visa-free. Curious? Find out here. Colombia is #43 in the world this year and I need a visa for 100 countries in the world. What does that mean? Well, I’ll compare it to the US passport only because that’s the one my sister (born in the US) as well as many other members of my family hold. The United States is #6 in the world and they need a visa for only 42 countries.
However, passport power is hardly restricted to the ability to travel. Other opportunities like work and travel visas (Working Holiday Visas,) work abroad opportunities, and salaries can be limited just because you have a certain passport.
For instance, I’m a native English speaker. I learned English when I was 8 years old and used it almost exclusively until I was almost 16 years old. I sound like I’m from the Midwest because, hey, I grew up in the Midwest. However, since my passport isn’t from a country that has English as their native language, I can’t be employed in a lot of countries to be an ESL teacher and not many countries are looking to hire a ton of Spanish teachers… womp, womp.
9. Airports Aren’t Fun Experiences
I enjoy traveling, I’m slightly afraid of flying but it’s nothing a good podcast or movie can’t fix. What I can’t get over is how many terrible airport experiences I have. Nine times out of ten I’ll get pulled aside “randomly” at airports. They’ll search my bags, ask me a thousand questions, take my phone away, put me through X-Rays (no joke). It’s not just at foreign airports either, they do it right in my hometown as I’m leaving to fly abroad. Colombian + flying alone is a red flag, but I’ve tested the theory and Colombian + flying with an American boyfriend isn’t any better. Privilege isn’t contagious, it seems.
At first, I’d cry, I’d be scared or nervous for no reason at all. I really do have just as much of a reason to be taking up space at an airport than anyone else. Now, I just sigh and walk where I need to walk, answer what I need to answer, and hope I don’t miss my flight.
8. Work is Limited
I really believe I ended up as a Digital Nomad for two reasons.
- Digital because people think twice before hiring me to work abroad. My skills aren’t mind-blowing enough to hire me and fly me out somewhere and my passport isn’t strong enough to make that process easy.
- Nomadic because that means wherever I work from online is only allowing me a tourist visa (or right now a student one). This means that when I run out of days on that visa or money to pay for school, I have to go somewhere else.
7. Freedom is Limited
I have to get really creative and learn fast. In some countries, I’m working with 30 days, 60 days, maybe 90 days for a visa. After that, I can’t pull the “leave and come back” method that my friends do. (This means they leave the country and return, get re-stamped start their time over). This works for them in a lot of countries in Asia, but for me, most countries limit my yearly visiting time and cut me off after that.
So, when that time is done, I have to know what’s next, how much it will cost to go there, and hopefully, make it worth it to relocate so that my salary is enough to allow me to save money while living there.
I know what you’re thinking, “just live in Colombia!” and I did for many years. However, there are so many benefits to living in other countries. I save more money, there are countries (like where I live now, in Taiwan) where it’s incredibly safe, among many others. If I didn’t work online, I’d be looking at $5/hour jobs in Medellin and…pass. So, how can I work online and not take advantage of mobility?
So, yes, it’s hard, but I choose to do it, that I do know.
6. You Can’t Just “Not Know”
When answering questions at immigration you’re not allowed to just “not know”. Well, maybe you are, but I’m not. If I don’t know where I’m staying because I want to walk to find a hostel or I’m not sure how many days exactly I’ll be staying, or I have no friends there, immigration agents get really serious. So begins a long line of “what do you mean?” questioning.
“What do you mean you don’t know where?”
“What do you mean you don’t know anyone here?”
“What do you mean you’re traveling alone?”
“What do you mean you work online?”
So, now I hyper-plan my trips. I make reservations, I make itineraries, I do anything to limit the time I’ll spend being interrogated for trying to be spontaneous.
5. Roots Are Vital
I’ll keep this one short. When explaining to a stranger why you’d ever want to be a tourist in their country the following things, in their eyes, mean you’re likely to leave when you’re done.
- You go to school (i.e. you’re getting a degree of some sort in your home country)
- You’re married (and your spouse isn’t coming with you)
- You have a kid (again, not coming on this trip so you have something to return to)
- You have a property (a house, a car, something!)
- You have a stable job. No, remote work apparently doesn’t count.
If you have none of these, you’re wildly threatening to the security of their immigration system and you must be interrogated and watched closely.
4. Idols Are Scarce
While the Female Digital Nomad group is a great resource for a lot of things, it’s certainly taken with a grain of salt without passport privilege. Sometimes, girls just post “where should I travel next?” like it’s a game of darts at a bar after a couple of beers. For me, the question looks more like “where can I travel next and will my plans be ruined by a denied visa?”
There are some blogs out there that have helped me during my travels, though some have led me astray (I was not allowed to go to Thailand because I didn’t know I needed a Yellow Fever vaccine). ColomViajeros is good, though low-budget. We need more idols and bloggers informing us of the possibilities and requirements of travel with lower-ranking passports.
Knowing how to wade through the difficulties and what awaits on the other end would have been great before jumping in headfirst, especially following people who were more privileged than me. Finding out it was twice as hard for me than my friends was a splash of ice water to the face.
3. Applying for a visa is expensive, time-consuming, and not guaranteed
I think the ranking for passports doesn’t always convey how difficult it is to get visas for some nationalities. Now, Colombians aren’t by any means the least privileged people out there. However, while “applying for a visa” for an American can mean red tape, or that that specific country requires more planning, for a Colombian it really is a nail-biter.
Will we bet the application fee? Might be $100 out the window if we get denied.
Will we be approved in time? I’ve had to show up, sweaty and scared, to visa processing offices on a Friday afternoon to pick up an approved visa before flying out on Sunday.
After all of the bureaucracy, you might still have the door shut on you.
2. “No Visa” or “Visa Approved” Doesn’t Mean “Easy Entry”
Let’s say you don’t worry about that part. As a Colombian, I go to a lot of European countries visa-free. I visited Hong Kong (no visa required) in April. I was approved for a visa in Australia! In all of these places, I was stopped and questioned thoroughly upon arrival.
There is no “easy” entry anywhere when your passport ranks low. You’re always looked at as, let’s face it, “less than”. Like you shouldn’t be there and they’re trying to figure out why, like it’s a puzzle. I couldn’t possibly be a regular Colombian woman just trying to spend some time in this country, I guess?
1. Dating becomes really difficult
This is #1 for a reason.
For two years I’ve struggled with how difficult it is to date across passport lines. I dated an American man and it hardly ever felt like there were cultural differences. We both grew up in the Midwest, we were only a couple of years apart, we could relate to each other about music, pop culture, puns. However, he held a US passport, of course, and I didn’t. So when he got hired to teach abroad, I thought I could follow easily. Turns out it was a thousand times harder for me to try to make it abroad without that little blue book.
Not being able to have the same privileges and opportunities led to some of the hardest problems I’ve had to face while dating. It’s that cliché where you love each other and can’t seem to coincide place/time/opportunity.
Just, watch Jessie Reyes tell it better than I can:
Anyway, I hope you learned something. I sure have over the years I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel as freely as my passport and my circumstances allow.
I’ve seen some really beautiful things, I live hilarity on the daily, and I’m just trying to make things better and teach other people if I can.
Don’t hate, come along on the journey.