Indian passport: Awful for travel, excellent for making friends!

India’s passport: Your gateway to travel restrictions?

Indian travellers often complain that they face lots of restrictions on their travels due to the limitations of the Indian passport. Indeed of the 103 countries indexed by Henley’s Visa restrictions index, India ranks #82nd. This is a poor score since only 51 countries will allow Indian citizens to either travel there without visa or get a visa on arrival. In comparison, citizens of Denmark can enter 169 countries and Afghans can enter only 26 without needing to get a visa before departure.

However, let’s look at the silver lining shall we? Over several years of travelling, I did discover some advantages and experienced interesting situations as a direct outcome or an indirect consequence of possessing an Indian passport. Read on in this lightly humoured post!

Travelling with an Indian passport? Yes there are benefits!

1. Travel to Bhutan

Many people do not know where Bhutan is: It’s a tiny Himalayan democratic kingdom tucked between India and Tibet (China) that measures its success based on a ‘Gross National Happiness’ scale as opposed to GDP. The place is untouched, unexplored and ‘off the beaten path‘ in possibly the truest sense of that overused phrase.

For people of most countries in the world, it costs anywhere between $200-$250 a day to visit Bhutan and they can only do so in guided tours except for special circumstances. Indians, on the other hand, can exclusively travel freely. I had a great time there – backpacking, hitchhiking and visiting penis temples, etc. Visiting this country is a unique opportunity and Indian citizens can do it cheaply!

2. Power up by pairing with another official document

Did you know that an Indian passport with another document, such as a visa from USA/Schengen zone or a permanent resident card of UK/Canada, will open up many new countries for travel? For sure, I could get a visa-on-arrival at Istanbul since I had a valid US travel visa + Indian passport. Similarly I could travel to Mexico using my Canadian permanent resident card + Indian passport. Travel to many Caribbean countries opens up for Indians with Canadian PR. You could even try getting the 15-day Sinai permit from Egyptian visa officer if you wait long enough at the Israeli border and buy him a coffee.

Over a dozen new countries suddenly became more accessible to me, not requiring a visa approval prior to departure anymore.

3. Cheaper visa-on-arrival fees

Several countries will issue a tourist visa on arrival at the border or at the airport for a fee. Typically the fee for these kinds of visas depends on bilateral agreements between the two countries, so often the cost of a visa is different for different countries. For example, when I travelled to Turkey earlier this year, I paid approximately $20 in entry fees. For Canadians the entry fee is approximately $60. That’s something!

4. Pique people’s curiosity

It’s rare to come across Indian backpackers when you are travelling. I have met a fellow Indian citizen by coincidence only once. I did come across people of Indian origin who were naturalized citizens of the first world, but obviously they do not travel on Indian passports so it doesn’t count. As a result, each time you flash your Indian passport, you can be assured that border officials, hostel managers, police officers, etc. will be genuinely interested in chatting with you. In the last couple of years alone I got dinner invitations (once in Tiberias because I was a ‘Hodu’ (Indian) asking for directions and I happened to ask someone who traced their ancestry there), many offered tea (particularly in Turkey, where surprisingly many older people recall famous ‘Hindistani’ songs), and then once a Russian policeman let me go without any bribe because he liked Raj Kapoor films…

It always surprises me that India has successfully kept her ‘exotic’ oriental image to a degree. While there is nothing mystical or exotic about India – you’ll know that within a minute of arriving there – people will still ask you interesting questions esp after seeing your passport. You can always count on questions about eating beef or why Indian gods and goddesses have many hands. Other questions include Bollywood, wearing a mark on one’s forehead, and of course, circumcision.

5. Collect colourful visas, not just entry stamps

How do I say this without sounding like a four-year old? When I show my passport to travellers from Europe or North America, they are quite surprised by its colorful pages. Indeed, as a reward for all the trouble of planning and applying for travel visas in advance, you get to show off colourful stickers in addition to standard entry and exit stamps in your passport.

Another nice things about visa stickers is that it becomes easy to recall the exact dates of your travel. Most tourist visas are valid for short durations, like 2 weeks or a month. My US visa on the other hand is valid for 10 years; it adds an element of real or perceived authenticity when talking to overzealous US border guards.

So you get a qualitative reward for quantitative efforts… I’d gladly trade but since I can’t, in the interim, I will enjoy the colorful visa stickers.

6. Become an unattractive target for abductions

And I am serious here!

When I was going to the West Bank from Israel proper, many people, including one overly protective border officer cautioned me because they thought I looked somewhat Israeli (actually, I can easily blend-in in many places, from Latin America to the Middle East to India!). When I was meeting the Afghan consulate officials for an interview, the biggest thing they were worried about was the threat of kidnapping. I backpack and travel cheaply, so it is clear that I do not have a ton of disposable income, but that’s a different story. Tourists around the world do get kidnapped once in a while.

However, with over 6,000 Indian nationals languishing in jails of foreign countries, from a population of 1.2 billion, it is clear that the government of India faces resource and logistical (and attitude) challenges to look after all its citizens.

So if you get kidnapped, good luck, your government is neither coming to your rescue nor paying a ransom… sounds so assuring, doesn’t it!

Travelling on an Indian passport – it’s not that bad afterall. ๐Ÿ™‚

Any other tips about the uniqueness of your passport that you’d like to contribute?