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Your Passport Please, Oh Sorry…!

How do you feel about your passport? This is the common story of traveling with a weak/powerless passport.

Today, Singapore and Germany have the most powerful passports and Afghanistan has the weakest among 199 countries (listed by passportindex.org). But how is like traveling when you hold a weak passport? Here is my experience of traveling with an Iranian passport, one of the top weakest passports in the world.

I am an Iranian citizen living abroad and used to travel the world as much as I can. My passport is among the top 15 weakest passports (individual rank of 186) in the world. This passport is among the 15 least credible passports in the world. Iran is famous for having international political conflicts and sanctions. In this article, I want to share my personal and my friends’ experiences with travel issues and visa applications when you hold an Iranian passport.


Malaysia was the first country that I traveled to continue my higher education. I chose Malaysia because it was/is a visa-free country for Iranian passport holders. Since then, I traveled to 27 countries around the world. Probably 27 is not that much, but believe me, it is a lot when you have one of the weakest passports in the world.

Credit/Debit Cards:

The first problem of Iranian nationals is carrying cash while traveling abroad. Because of the U.S. financial sanctions, Visa, MasterCard, and other international credit cards are not available in Iran. Iranian banks provide local debit/credit cards which can only be used within the country. So, Iranian nationals have no other choice than carrying cash while traveling abroad. This issue is also affecting the tourists traveling to Iran as they can not use their credit cards there.

Airbnb is unavailable in some countries including Iran — Captured on 31 Aug. 2018

Hotel Booking/Reservation:

Hotel reservation websites usually require credit card’s information in order to confirm a booking. As it was mentioned earlier, international credit cards (e.g. Visa, MasterCard, AMEX, etc.) are not available for Iranian nationals, therefore they can not use well-known booking websites.

Besides the limitation of a credit card in Iran, some of the booking websites (e.g. Airbnb) has blocked the access to their services for some certain countries including Iran.

Malaysia:

Malaysia was the first foreign country that I traveled to as a student. Even though I was a legally registered student at a public university, it was not easy to open a bank account for students with Iranian passports. Some banks, such as RHB, simply denied to open a bank account due to the nationality, and some other banks asked the Iranian holders of previously opened accounts to close their accounts because of the US/International sanctions on Iran (let’s read Iranians).

Singapore:

When I was in Malaysia, a group of my friends from Japan, Netherlands, Estonia, Palestine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and me from Iran decided to travel to Singapore. Three of us had to apply for a visa to enter Singapore, Me from Iran, and my friends from Palestine and Kazakhstan. I do not want to judge, but interestingly the only three Muslims in the group. We applied for the visa, and we all could successfully get our visas exactly on the day of our travel.

At the border of Singapore, the officer looked at my passport, and asked me: “Are you a Muslim?” I replied: “Yes”. Why should I lie? Then, he asked another officer to guide me to a room. However, I was not alone, the other two Muslim fellow travelers were also brought to the same room. Our other friends, they also came with us to the room to accompany us. The other officer in the room asked us some security questions, and when he realized that we are traveling with some other nationalities, he stamped our passports and let us in.

A few months later, I applied again, this time with my parents. The second time, the exact same thing happened to my parents and me at the border.

Hong Kong:

The first time I traveled to Hong Kong, it took me about one month to get my visa from Kuala Lumpur, which was very hard to obtain for Iranian nationals.

When I walked to the immigration counter at the airport and showed my passport, the officer immediately grabbed a paper next to him with the title of “Restricted”. Well, should I be surprised then? He filled out the form, never asked me any questions and called another officer to take me for security screening. I was taken to a waiting room. I asked one of the officers in the room: “How long does it take?” He responded: “very short”. This short time, took 2 hours. In that waiting room, I was not alone. There were some other people from Iran, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. After a while, someone came and called my name to follow him to his office. This new officer asked me literally everything from my childhood to adulthood. He asked me if he can take a copy of all my IDs (including my university ID). When he left the room to make some photocopies, I had a short time to look around the room, so that I noticed a poster on the wall. It was written in English that the Hong Kong government/immigration does not discriminate against anyone based on his/her race, nationality, religion, etc. When the officer came back into the room, I pointed to the poster and asked him: “Am I not here because of my nationality or religion?” He replied: “No, you are an interesting person, and we wanted to know more about you.” To be honest, that was a very clever response, and we both smiled. He stamped my passport, escorted me outside his room, and welcomed me to Hong Kong (of course with nearly 3 hours of delay).

The second time I traveled to Hong Kong, with my girlfriend, to attend a very well-known international conference, ACM RecSys 2013. We decided to spend a few days in Macao (we do not need a visa) first, then take a ship to Hong Kong.

When we arrived at the harbor of Hong Kong, my girlfriend was in front of me in the immigration line. When she handed over her passport, the officer grabbed the same paper of “Restricted”. Then I jumped in and told him that I was in Hong Kong before, and we are together. He looked at my passport and checked my previous Hong Kong stamps. Thank God, he changed his mind and stamped our passport to enter Hong Kong hassle-free.

Europe / Schengen Area:

Personally, I never had any issue for Schengen visa since I never applied for Schengen inside Iran, however, you will be treated differently if you have an Iranian passport.

A friend of mine (Iranian), PhD student in Medical Image Processing, was accepted for a conference in Image Processing and Nuclear Science in France. He applied for the visa in Kuala Lumpur with all the relevant and required documents. So now, link these clues: 1) The conference was partially about “Nuclear Science”; 2) Iran has international issues with nuclear energy and it is sanctioned; 3) my friend is Iranian. It is not unexpected to have his visa rejected, and it happened. But interestingly, he was invited for an interview session in the embassy, but right after the interview, the refusal letter, which was previously prepared, was handed over.

The visa application is much worse if an Iranian applicant is applying from inside Iran. Besides all the complexities of visa applications, the appointment times are usually abnormal and almost ridiculous. For example, if someone is going to apply for a tourist/visit visa in German Embassy in Tehran, it takes nearly 6 months to get the appointment (see Spiegel), and it will be extended up to two years for a student visa. Yes, you heard it right, 2 years of waiting for only an appointment to apply for a study visa/permit. Some similar stories are heard from the other countries in the Schengen Area including Italy (see the petition).

These visa issues are very common for Iranian passport holders, but these issues will not be over even when we travel to Europe/Schengen states. When I arrived in Germany to continue my PhD, I simply went to Deutsche Bank to open a bank account, and the representative gave me an appointment for the next day. The next day, when I went to the bank, the person in charge asked me to sit down and told me that they are so sorry, as they can not open a bank account for me because of my nationality. The same thing also happened when I went to the Commerz Bank, and only a limited number of banks could open a bank account for us.

The issue of opening/closing bank accounts is very common in other countries such as the UK, Spain, etc. (see The Guardian, Le Quidy or The Local)

United States of America (USA):

Well, the USA is among the most difficult visa applications for Iranians. However, the president Donald Trump issued a travel ban for nationals of some countries, including Iran. This travel ban was issued in 3 versions, just like the iPhone updates, with the latest Travel Ban 3.0.

This travel ban was not that all bad, and it had some positive consequences. In July 2017, my wife, an Iranian PhD student in Canada, had a paper accepted at a reputable conference in Hawaii. Since she could not participate herself due to the travel ban, we traveled back to Tehran, Iran to arrange our wedding.

The problem is not limited to the travel ban. Even the Iranian-dual citizens of the countries with visa exempt policy for the US, may not be eligible for ESTA, and they should apply for Visa in advance.

Canada:

Canada is among the most difficult Visas to get in the world. I personally could get my visa for Canada pretty fast (in about a week in Vienna), but for my other friends, it took almost more than a year.

Just like other countries, Iranian nationals are not discrimination-free inside Canada. There are few hundreds-to-few thousands of Iranian applicants inside Canada waiting for their immigration status confirmation (e.g. Permanent Residence Applications — Federal Stage) with 300% to 1200% more processing times than the average of other nationals (see CBC, CTV News, The Star). This huge delay has caused various campaigns over the Internet with Twitter hashtag #DelayedIranianApplications.

Russia:

Once my wife, my brother-in-law, and I decided to take a cruise in Europe between Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Finland. At the time, I was residing in Germany, my wife was studying in Canada, and my brother-in-law was living/working in Tehran, Iran.

When we arrived at the harbor in St. Petersburg, we went to the immigration counter. The immigration officer called her colleague to come (speaking in Russian), her colleague came and asked us few general questions, checked and scanned every single page of our passports, and finally stamped my passport and my wife’s, but she asked my brother-in-law to follow her.

It took more than an hour, and no one was answering us (my wife and I), that were he is and how long it may take. When he came, he told us that the interrogation only took 5 minutes, but he was waiting for more than an hour alone for someone to come and ask the questions.

Japan:

Last year, I traveled to Japan for a conference in Kanazawa. I applied for my visa in Dusseldorf, Germany, and it was issued after one month. I was happy to get the visa because it is not an easy Visa application for Iranian nationals.

My first-leg flight landed in Tokyo Narita Airport during the Cherry blossom season. It was a very crowded airport. I waited in the line of immigration to have my passport and visa checked. I passed the immigration without any issues, and I was thinking how smooth it was. I was nearly exiting the arrival saloon that a security officer stopped me, and asked me to show him my passport. He checked my visa and asked me why I am traveling to Japan. I replied that I am here for a scientific conference. He asked me to show some relevant documents about the conference. This was a bit strange to me as it was happening after clearing the immigration and security checks. I only had a backpack, and they checked every item inside my backpack. Obviously, they found nothing and welcomed me to Japan afterward.

Besides the strict security checks, I was surprised by how nice and polite the Japanese people are, and I was stunned by the beauty of the cherry blossom season in Tokyo.

Ukraine:

A few weeks ago, I was invited by an Ukrainian-American company, SoftServe Inc., to have a talk in ITWeekend in Kiev about Artificial Intelligence (which is my expertise). This company arranged official invitation letters (for my wife and me), sent the original invitations via DHL, arranged our flight tickets, our accommodations, set my talk schedule, updated the website of the event about my talk, and probably many more preparations that I am not fully aware of.

Since we (my wife and I) were visiting our parents in Iran, we decided to apply for the Visa in the Embassy of Ukraine in Tehran, Iran.

In the visa office, we were being asked if we have any valid Visa for US, Canada and/or the Schengen area. We, both, had valid residence permits of Canada and Schengen/Germany, with a history of traveling to various countries. We submitted all the required documents, as well as the invitation letters, documents related to the inviting party, event, etc. The visa fee was 65 USD (charged by the embassy of Ukraine in Iran) + 28 Euros (charged by VFS — By the way, this was the worst VFS office I have ever encountered in terms of customer service). We also had an interview with a Ukrainian officer the next day.

Visa refusal stamp by the Embassy of Ukraine in the Islamic Republic of Iran

After two weeks, I was called that our passports are ready for collection. I collected our passports, and I found that for the first time my visa has been refused. The reason for the refusal was:

“failure to prove the purpose of the foreigner’s/stateless person’s intended stay in Ukraine.”

Even, now that you are reading this article, you know what our intention was to travel to Ukraine, but it seems that they did not know it despite all the submitted supporting documents and interviews.

When I notified the inviting company, SoftServe Inc., that our Visa applications have been refused, they were also confused about the reason of refusal given by the embassy, as everything, especially our purpose of the stay was very clear in our applications.

This type of visa refusal is very common and generic for almost all embassies to reject the visa applications without giving any accurate information, whenever they want to reject an application without any valid reason. The same story has happened to my friends in the embassies of Canada, Germany, France, USA, UK, Singapore, etc.

Summary

The discussed problems are not limited to me, my family or my friends. It may happen to a wide range of nationalities with the weak passports. This is a clear discrimination over the nationals of certain countries, only because they are born in a country where they had absolutely no control over it. This discrimination stays with us as long as we have this nationality (PS:/ Iranian nationals cannot give up their nationality over another one).

We, the nationals of weak passports, cannot really plan for our trips in advance. We are usually forced to buy the tickets as expensive as possible because usually, we do not have the Visa flexibility to choose a better flight date with a better price.

These so-called civilized countries roar the human rights continuously, and they are proud of following the human rights in their countries, meanwhile, they abuse the rights of other nationals easily due to the political and religious reasons with false accusations of national security, where it is not necessary to be a concern. They also accuse third-world and developing countries (including Iran) for abusing their own citizens, while they do more or less the same thing to the nationals of those countries during the visa process and inside their countries.

Nationals of countries with weak passports are doomed to apply for visa applications, high visa processing fees, preparing loads of documents, long waiting and processing times, and high volume of visa refusal only because they are born in a different country.

I wish there was no nationality except the global citizenship. I wish the visa applications were being processed according to the personal characteristics and achievements, and not based on the nationality and politics. I wish the global citizens were being treated without concerning the race, nationality, skin color, religion and the other factors in which the people have no control over them.