WITH BORDERS reopening after months of coronavirus restrictions, some travellers are beginning to plan holidays and work trips again. In addition to packing sunscreen and getting that PowerPoint presentation ready, many will have to sort out their visas. For some unlucky travellers, this will prove costly. A new working paper shows that visa prices vary enormously depending on the traveller’s passport: the richer the country, the less its citizens have to pay to go abroad.
Researchers from the European University Institute collated prices for 85,000 different visas to and from virtually every country in the world—including those intended for tourists, business travellers, foreign workers and students. Taking each country in their data set in turn, they noted how much it would cost a citizen of that country to buy a visa to numerous other countries and worked out an average. They found that people from richer countries pay considerably less for a visa than those from poorer ones (see charts).
North Africans pay more than twice as much for a tourist visa than North Americans. And when the cost of an average tourist visa was compared to average national income, the disparity between rich and poor countries became even starker. Whereas North Americans have to work for less than half a day, on average, to pay for a tourist visa, sub-Saharan Africans have to work for 19 days. Such differences are sometimes the result of pricey levies. Ecuador charges $450 for would-be travellers from some poor or conflict-ridden countries, meaning Ethiopians must stump up seven months’ national-average salary for the privilege of visiting. Waivers allowing citizens to travel visa-freel are also granted to rich countries more often than to poor ones.
Is racial discrimination to blame for the sky-high fees charged to African tourists? Probably not. The researchers tested this by adding two variables to their model that, according to previous academic research, are important for explaining visa waivers—economic prosperity, as measured by income per person, and quality of democracy, as measured by our sister company the Economist Intelligence Unit. They found that when these variables were included, the additional costs associated with travelling from Africa disappeared. In fact, controlling for these factors, travelling for work from Africa looked relatively cheap compared with costs for travellers from poor countries in other continents.
Those hoping to escape these visa costs with the help of the private sector may be disappointed. The researchers compared the prices of 3,000 visas from one leading online agency—touristvisaonline.com—with those found on official government websites. They found that the agency was, on average, 90% more expensive (excluding fees). The amounts by which the firm overcharged its clients, relative to governments, tended to be round numbers, such as 50%, suggesting it was deliberate. As seasoned travellers will know, the kindly soul who offers to help you navigate local bureaucracy almost certainly has an angle.