Nepal’s passport is among the weakest in the world—weaker than North Korea’sThe dismal state of the Nepali passport can largely be attributed to Nepalis hiding out illegally in foreign countries while on temporary visas, say officials.
Nepal has one of the weakest passports in the world, according to numerous organisations that track passport strength. On the recently released Henley Passport Index, Nepal was ranked 101st out of 107 countries, a position it has occupied since 2018. This is on par with Palestine and below countries like North Korea, South Sudan and Kosovo.
The Henley Passport Index is based on data from the International Air Transport Association and research by the Henley and Partners Research Department.
Though the ranking should not come as a surprise to many Nepalis who have attempted international travel, this poor standing is a cause for concern, especially since Nepal is no longer in the midst of a conflict, has not been involved in any large-scale criminal or terrorist incident, is a democracy, and is politically stable.
But officials and experts that the Post spoke to say that there are multiple factors behind the weakness of Nepal’s passport, including a propensity to violate visa regulations. But more concerning is the fact that successive governments have not taken any proactive measures to address this, they say.
“Ordinary passports show the credibility of the nation,” said Nishchal Nath Pandey, executive director of the Centre for South Asian Studies. “Once, Nepalis would get visa-on-arrival in many countries but now, even countries like the UAE, Thailand, and Malaysia insist on prior visas. This is a humiliation because thousands of Nepali tourists go to these nations every year.”
According to two officials from the Foreign Ministry, who did not wish to be identified as they were not authorised to speak to the media, there have been several cases over the years of the misuse of passports by either diplomats or officials. When it comes to ordinary citizens, there have been many instances of Nepalis overstaying visas or living illegally in foreign countries that they enter on tourist visas, they said.
During the conflict years of 1996-2006 and immediately after, many Nepalis also sought asylum in the West after arriving on temporary visas, which discouraged them from providing easy visas to Nepalis, according to Foreign Ministry officials.
Earlier, Nepalis had easy access to several European countries, which provided three months' visa-on-arrival. But all of this stopped after Nepalis started overstaying their visas and migrating illegally. Today, only 38 countries provide on-arrival visas to Nepali nationals, according to the Henley Passport Index.
Among them, India does not require visas while others provide either 30, 60 or 90 days on-arrival visas. Most countries that provide on-arrival visas to Nepalis are either in Asia, like Singapore and the Philippines, or in Africa, like Egypt, Kenya and Rwanda.
According to one Nepali diplomat currently serving in a European nation, the status of Nepal’s passport is largely determined by the country’s economic development and the socio-cultural status of its citizens.
“It is all about the trust,” the Nepali diplomat said. “In many countries, there is an impression that Nepalis will not return. They do not see us as tourists or visitors. Either we are seen as migrant workers or illegal immigrants. Until we develop economically and address this culture of going abroad for work, we will be in the same situation.”
Eric Neumayer, a geography professor at the London School of Economics, has identified a number of factors that are crucial in visa regimes, including the GDP of the country, restrictions on political freedoms, armed conflict, terrorist attacks, outbound tourists, tourism receipts, bilateral trade and cultural and ‘civilisational’ similarities.
“Our passport ranking is based on visa access, and our access is low because of our economy and our expenditure capability,” said Ram Kaji Khadka, director-general of the Department of Passports. “The ranking also depends on our mobility, travel, trade and business, and level of engagements with the citizens of each country. If our people have a high mobility rate, return on time and spend well, our ranking will automatically go up.”
Pandey, however, believes that the government needs to make it a priority to ensure that the Nepali passport is not among the weakest in the world.
“This must be a priority for the Foreign Ministry,” he said. “Bhutanese and Indians are getting visa-on-arrival in far more countries than us. Countries like Australia, the UK and France do not even grant us visas from their embassies in Nepal; we need to apply in New Delhi, which has created a lot of hassle.”
But according to officials at the Foreign Ministry, the strength of the passport is related to the country’s economic stature and it is not going to improve until Nepalis stop hiding out in developed countries while there on temporary visas.