Borders and Passport Power

5 minutes, 4 links


Updated May 4, 2022
Global Natives

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

The majority of nomads come from advanced economies in Europe, North America and Oceania, which means they hold some of the world’s most powerful passports. Their lifestyle leverages an unjust reality: a person’s country of origin is what determines the restrictions placed on their movement. But nomads also represent a significant democratization of mobility rights, from an elite minority buying passports to a more diverse group of people having the opportunity to live borderless lives.

According to The Passport Index, a passport comparison website run by the investment firm Arton Capital, tourists from advanced economies are granted a visa exemption or visa-on-arrival in 70% of countries worldwide.* There’s little practical difference between these two visa categories, and when people mention “tourist visas,” it’s usually arrangements like these they refer to. Tourist visas offer anywhere between seven and ninety days in a country, and a strong passport allows you to stay longer and renew more easily.

For the right passport-holders, tourist visas are granted with few questions, but they do come with specific requirements. Some countries ask for exit flights, while others want to see a confirmed accommodation booking for the length of a person’s stay. Providing these documents means making decisions about when you’re leaving, where you’re staying, and where you’re going next in advance, which, for nomads, would mean firm commitments (or accepting financial losses) ahead of time.

Figure: Mobility scores of passports worldwide. The mobility score is the total number of countries that can be accessed easily by holders of that passport (visa-free, visa-on-arrival, eTA, and eVisa within 3 days). Source: Passport Index, a real-time ranking of the world’s passports, by Arton Capital, from March 2022. Used with permission.

Figure: Mobility offered to holders of passports from select countries, from United Arab Emirates (highest mobility) to Afghanistan (lowest). Numbers indicate how many other countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival access (dark and light green, respectively) or require visas (dark red) for holders of that passport. Source: Passport Index, from March 2022. Used with permission.

Tourist visas often dictate a person must leave after a certain timeframe, but there are fewer, if any, restrictions on how long they have to wait before returning. This has created a loophole that’s enabled a popular nomad border hack: visa runs. Since the beginning, nomads have found inventive ways to work within the rules, but not necessarily in the ways the governments that created those rules intended. A visa run is a short side-trip where nomads leave a country in order to re-enter and reset their immigration clock. With an EU passport, a nomad who wants to live in Thailand for six months might take a 30-day visa on arrival, extend it for 30 days locally, then spend a weekend in Malaysia, return to Thailand for another 60 days, spend a weekend in Indonesia, then return to Thailand for another 60 days. There are no specific rules against visa runs in most countries, but if you found yourself drinking in a bar with an immigration official, you probably wouldn’t bring it up.

The above-board alternative to a visa run is to obtain a work visa and residency permit, a process that might include starting a company in your country of origin and then applying for permission for that company to employ people in the country you want to visit. After that, you need to pay for a lawyer and accountant to ensure you’re complying with local regulations, and file taxes for at least two years, in a language you probably don’t understand. All this takes months, sometimes years, to set up, costs thousands of dollars, and requires ongoing maintenance. The authorities often require you to be in your home country when you apply, and it can take weeks or months for permission to be granted. Even then, the visas and permits come with conditions: spend a certain number of days in the country each year, for example, park thousands of dollars in a local bank account until your visa expires. That’s a lot of hard work and expense just to try a place out for a few months.

So, why not design a new global mobility tool specifically for nomads? To those working in the remote economy of the mid-2010s, the need for something better was already clear: a purpose-built visa allowing temporary visitors the option to register with the authorities on clear terms, no exit flights or visa runs necessary.

It wouldn’t be long until a country set its sights on bringing this idea to life.

The First Nomad Visas

Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Suddenly, the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.Milton Friedman, American economist and 1976 Nobel Prize winner

A few weeks before the end of 2016, Karoli Hindriks met with Estonia’s Ministry of the Interior—the officials tasked with regulating the country’s borders. Hindriks, who is the Tallinn-based founder of an immigration and relocation company called Jobbatical, believed every country on earth should start working on new mobility tools to attract global talent. At the meeting, she told the government just that, and suggested their first step should be to launch a specialized visa for digital nomads.

The Estonian ministers agreed. The tiny nation—sandwiched between Latvia, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—has one of the world’s most advanced digital governments, meaning the country was already in a strong position to pursue a nomad visa. The e-Residency program, launched in 2014, allows foreigners to register their identity with the Estonian government, establish an online business in the EU, and open a local bank account without ever visiting.* Many nomads and remote businesses were already among the country’s population of e-Residents, so policymakers had direct access to the right target market. The question was what it should look like. Luckily for them, Hindriks had a few ideas up her sleeve.

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