Will your US passport still be as valuable after pandemic restrictions are lifted?
If you travel the world on a U.S. passport, you currently have the ability to enter up to 184 countries without a visa. But the welcome mat may not be out as widely for U.S. travelers in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic when all the travel restrictions are lifted.
Sign up for our daily newsletter for travel news, tips and more.
Over the past decade, the U.S. travel freedom score increased 26 points, from a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 159 in 2010, according to an annual index published by Henley & Partners about the world's strongest passports, ranked by their visa-free access to other nations. In January 2020, the U.S. tied for eighth place with Belgium, Norway, Greece and the United Kingdom. Japan took first place with access to 191 countries that don't require a visa from Japanese passport holders.
However, the Henley Passport Index recently cautioned that a strong passport will matter far less when countries around the world rush to close their borders because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
"Until now, countries do not appear to have considered health security as a determinant or requirement when negotiating visa waivers," said political science researchers Uğur Altundal and Ömer Zarpli in the Henley & Partners report dated April 2020. "However, increasing public health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic may change this. In the past, restrictions have always been short-term ... in response to epidemics. COVID-19, on the other hand, might see the current restrictions becoming the norm."
Altundal and Zarpli said that a country's quality of health security could become a consideration for visa waivers in future, especially for countries whose economies do not depend on inbound tourism. "There is a positive correlation between health security and visa freedom," they said.
Related: These are the world's strongest passports for 2020
"The reality is that current stringent travel restrictions mean that most non-essential travel ... is heavily curtailed for ... almost every country, as more travel bans are implemented daily, and ever-more-stringent coronavirus lockdown regulations are imposed by governments worldwide," the Henley Passport Index stated on April 7. Henley's research suggests that current lockdown measures implemented to slow the spread of disease may negatively affect international mobility into the future.
"We are in uncharted territory," epidemiology and health expert Dr. Mary E. Wilson told TPG via email. "The world will be changed profoundly by the pandemic. Until we have a safe, simple, affordable, effective treatment or vaccine — neither one likely for at least 12 to 18 months — I think COVID-19 outbreaks will continue to erupt around the globe."
As of mid-April 2020, more than four dozen countries have banned all foreigners and the European Union has banned almost all non-EU travelers from 26 of its member nations, although enforcement is up to the individual countries. U.S. travelers are currently unable to enter popular tourist destinations such as Australia and Singapore, not even to transit through an airport en route to other destinations. Many other destinations that still remain open, including some U.S. states and territories, currently require stringent proof of recent good health, as well as a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entry.
What will happen to travel once all of the restrictions are lifted? As of now, there haven't been any long-term changes for U.S. passport holders, but the pandemic is expected to leave its mark on the travel industry in ways that have nothing to do with geopolitics, such as requirements to have health screenings to enter heavy-hit countries.
Although predictions for future travel vary, it's likely that a number of regions may extend border restrictions for some time to limit visitors from countries with higher infection rates. This may well include the United States, which had reported more than 600,000 confirmed cases as of April 14, 2020.
Future generations of international students pursuing higher education may also be impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer numbers choosing to study abroad within the United States due to border closures. "Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, America’s flight restrictions trapped almost 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S.," said Greg Lindsay, Director of Applied Research at NewCities, in a report published by Henley & Partners. "The decision to close campuses confused matters further, with over a million international students potentially in violation of their visas. For the children of a rising global middle class with more and more options, this pandemic may prove to be the tipping point in choosing educational destinations. When the world recovers, the best and brightest may well take coronavirus response into consideration when deciding on their future options."
U.S. travelers may eventually face tougher entrance requirements, including required health checks or certifications, doctor's notes or even new forms of authorizations or vaccinations. We could eventually see some kind of "proof of resistance" to the disease or a medical history showing coronavirus exposure.
To combat travel limitations based on nationality, Dr. Juerg Steffen, CEO of Henley & Partners believes that many global citizens will pursue alternative residence or citizenship in other countries where they are able to do so. "Acquiring alternative residence or citizenship will act as a hedge against the significant macro-economic volatility that is predicted, creating even more sovereign and societal value across the world," Steffen said in a Henley Passport Index report from April 2020.
It's clear that U.S. travelers will not be able to fully maximize their visa-free privileges for some time to come. But Dr. Christian Kaelin, the founder of the Henley Passport Index and chairman of Henley & Partners, added some perspective to the situation.
"The last few weeks have made it apparent that travel freedom is contingent on factors that occasionally can be utterly beyond our control," Kaelin, said in an April press release. "This is, of course, something that citizens of countries with weak passports in the lower ranks of the index are all too familiar with. As public health concerns and security rightfully take precedence over all else now, even within the otherwise borderless European Union, this is an opportunity to reflect on what freedom of movement and citizenship essentially mean for those of us who have perhaps taken them for granted in the past.”