How can Vietnam improve its passport ranking?

March 25, 2024 | 03:15 pm PT
Bui Man Engineer
Many years ago, at a relative's wedding in the U.K., I met a man named Danh who had traveled from Vietnam.

Danh said that to get a visa to the U.K., his mother had to transfer the ownership of her house to him.

The U.K. embassy staff noticed this when reviewing the property title copy and questioned it. Danh bluntly replied: "My mother had to do this because you are concerned that I may not return to Vietnam." His straightforwardness helped him secure a U.K. visa.

I also knew another Vietnamese expatriate, an uncle who renovated his house and wrote a sponsorship letter for a visa for his nephew, a bricklayer. During the interview, the nephew inadvertently mentioned that besides visiting relatives and traveling, he wanted to help his uncle with the house renovation. Consequently, his visa application was rejected. Furthermore, the uncle could be blacklisted, preventing him from ever sponsoring any relatives to the U.K. for the rest of his life.

I once helped fill out an application for a Vietnamese expatriate's aunt, who wanted to visit her nephew in the U.K. Despite having satisfactory financial conditions, her visa application was denied. I was informed that the U.K. Embassy sent a letter to the local police for verification, and discovered discrepancies in the provided information.

From these three stories, two common themes emerge. One is the visa-issuing country's concern about visa recipients overstaying. This is for economic reasons. The second is the importance of honesty, a cultural aspect. Dishonesty can lead to security risks, as well as an increase in crime rates and social welfare burdens.

According to the World Power Index, the Vietnamese passport ranks at 75th, allowing entry into 51 countries and territories, including 19 countries without a visa needed and 32 countries with a visa on arrival. Henley and Partners rank the Vietnamese passport 92nd globally, with entry into 55 countries, on par with countries like Egypt, Bhutan, Haiti and the Central African Republic. Afghanistan is at the bottom of the list, ranking 109th.

A question arises: what are the key factors, and how can the Vietnamese passport achieve a higher ranking like its neighbors, such as Brunei (21st), Malaysia (12th), or Singapore (1st)?

In my opinion, GDP growth alone is not enough to ensure passport power. Vietnam is among the top 35 countries with the highest GDP globally (ranked 34th), according to the Center for Economics and Business Research (CEBR). However, this does not help improve the ranking of the Vietnamese passport. China, with the world's second-highest GDP, ranks 64th for its passport, while India is 85th, Indonesia 68th, and Russia 55th.

When one explores the correlation between per capita income and passport ranking, it appears that countries with high per capita income generally have higher passport power indices, and vice versa. However, there are many exceptions. Qatar, with a per capita income of $81,968 per year, ranks only 55th, behind Venezuela at rank 47th, which has a lower per capita income than Vietnam. Another example is Saudi Arabia, another wealthy Gulf country, whose passport ranks 63rd.

Vietnams passport ranking and the countrys social progress index. Graphics by Bui Man

Vietnam's passport ranking and the country's social progress index. Graphics by Bui Man

Thus, many other important factors can influence passport ranking. In my view, these include the relationships between countries, geopolitical tensions, potential security threats, economic cooperation, investment policies, cultural exchanges, technology and innovation, and the principle of reciprocity in diplomacy. Social factors like crime rates and the culture of population also play a role.

Many countries, with small GDPs and average to high per capita incomes, have very high passport rankings, like Greece ranked 5th, and Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia ranking from 7th to 9th. They enjoy visa-free access to over 185 countries and territories. A major reason is thanks to their membership in the European Union (EU), automatically granting them visa-free access to 27 EU countries. The EU's diplomatic strength with other global regions and blocs also helps member countries enjoy more visa-free travel.

Malaysia is an interesting case, with a per capita income of $13,035 per year, ranking 12th in passport power. Since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has had almost no wars or major tensions with other countries. Its non-aligned foreign policy has helped maintain good diplomatic relations with "all sides," even during the Cold War, and has fostered positive diplomatic and cooperation policies with blocs like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (57 countries), the Commonwealth (56 countries), the EU (27 countries), Latin America and the Caribbean (33 countries), the OECD (38 countries), ASEAN (10 countries), and East Asia...

Malaysia also focuses on building soft power, enhancing economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges. Importantly, the people uphold the rule of law, causing fewer security concerns, criminal activities, or illegal stays.

Among 30 countries with per capita incomes between $3,000 and $6,000 per year, Vietnam, with a per capita income of $4,316 per year, ranks 27th. Ukraine, with a per capita income not far from Vietnam's, ranks first among these countries, and 31st worldwide. Therefore, cultural, historical, political factors and long-established relationships between European countries and other nations also contribute to passport rankings.

The relatively low ranking of the Vietnamese passport can be attributed to various factors. Vietnam has undergone long wars with major powers, was divided, and after reunification, faced wars on its southwestern and northern borders. The country also suffered embargoes and the impacts of the Cold War until the 1990s. These factors disrupted and diminished diplomatic relations with other countries.

Post-war devastation led to economic migration waves and the search for political asylum. Additionally, the notorious reputation of illegal residency and rising crime rates has devalued the "Vietnam brand," leading to stricter visa policies and possibly prejudices imposed on Vietnamese citizens by other countries.

Vietnam's broad diplomatic efforts only began after the country opened up and the embargo ended, so the fruits of Vietnam's diplomacy, economic growth, and positive social changes need time to materialize.

I explored the correlation between the passport ranking index and the Social Process Index, which assesses how comprehensively countries provide social needs, environmental and welfare benefits to their citizens, rather than single economic indicators. Generally, countries with high social development scores also have high passport rankings. With a social development score of 68.18 (in 2022), Vietnam deserves (or has great potential for) a much higher passport score than its current ranking. This indicates that both at the national and individual levels, much effort is needed to achieve positive changes in other countries' perceptions of Vietnam, making them align with the country's current economic, social and human development.

To improve the power ranking of its passport, Vietnam could learn from EU countries, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. At the national level, this involves policies to enhance soft power, cooperation and diplomacy, leveraging the strength of blocs that Vietnam is a member of to negotiate with other blocs, rather than individual countries alone. It's important to note that foreign policy is crucial but not sufficient. Evidently, Vietnam has established comprehensive strategic relationships with countries outside of the ASEAN bloc, but none of these countries have allowed visa-free access for Vietnamese citizens.

Vietnam also needs to rebuild its national cultural development strategy, education policies, and cultivate a law-abiding and honest consciousness among its citizens, like Singapore and Japan do.

On a personal level, it involves cultivating habits that value the nation's image and dignity. When working, studying, or traveling abroad, one should act responsibly, comply with the host country's visa regulations, not overstay, and actively engage in cultural exchanges to promote the image and enhance understanding between Vietnam and other countries.

I hope that in 10 years, with the right policies and persistent efforts of both the government and the people, the Vietnamese passport will gradually improve its position and enter the top 30 in the world.

*Bui Man is an expert on soil characteristics. He has also been a senior engineer and lab manager at GTC Soil Analysis Services in Dubai since 2018.

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