Asia remains home to world’s most powerful passports: Japan, South Korea & Singapore top list

11 January, 2023

As we enter the new year, the latest results from the Henley Passport Index provide an insight into a world characterised by extraordinary upheaval and offer a revealing look at what lies ahead.

For the fifth year running, Japan crowns the Henley Passport Index, which is based on exclusive and official data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It is the original ranking of all the world's passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa.

Japan, South Korea and Singapore offer visa-free access to 85% of the world

Japanese citizens are now able to visit 193 destinations out of 227 around the world visa-free, while South Koreans and Singaporeans, whose countries are tied in second place on the index, enjoy a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 192. Germany and Spain follow, with visa-free access to 190 destinations worldwide.

UK and US 'unlikely' to regain top spot

The UK and the US remain in sixth and seventh places, with scores of 187 and 186, respectively, and it appears increasingly unlikely that either country will ever regain the top spot on the index which they jointly held nearly a decade ago in 2014.

'Revenge travel' is real, but mobility gap widens

With global travel now at around 75% of pre-pandemic levels, those with the opportunity to do so appear to be embracing what has been termed 'revenge travel,' according to residence and citizenship advisory firm and the index's author Henley & Partners.

But deeper analysis of the index reveals the darker side to this optimistic picture.

Afghanistan remains firmly at the bottom of the index, with a score of just 27 - 166 fewer visa-free destinations than Japan, which represents the widest global mobility gap in the index's 18-year history.

Index's lowest-ranking countries 'shut out' of economic mobility and growth opportunities

As indicated by new research conducted by Henley & Partners into the link between passport strength and access to the global economy, citizens of the index's lowest-ranking countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq (visa-free score of 29), and Syria (visa-free score of 30) are "effectively shut out of a shockingly wide breadth of opportunities for economic mobility and growth," it says.

Dr Christian H Kaelin, chairman of Henley & Partners, and whom invented the passport index concept nearly 20 years ago, says that this latest, eye-opening study enhances our understanding of what passport power means in concrete financial terms.

For global citizens and international businesspeople, a better measure of economic mobility and opportunity afforded by their passports "is an indication of what share of the world's GDP is accessible to them visa-free," he says.

Direct link between passport strength and economic power

By combining Henley Passport Index data and World Bank GDP data, the new Henley & Partners research ranks all 199 passports in the world in terms of their Henley Passport Power (HPP) score, a term that indicates the percentage of global GDP each passport provides to its holders' visa-free.

Take the Japanese passport, for instance, that gives visa-free access to 193 destinations (85% of the world). Collectively, these countries account for a whopping 98% of the global economy (with Japan's own GDP contribution being around 5%).

To contrast this figure with a passport from the lower end of the spectrum, Nigerian passport holders can access only 46 destinations visa-free (20% of the world), with these countries accounting for just 1.5% of global GDP.

At the bottom of the ranking, the Afghanistan passport provides visa-free access to just 12% of the world and less than 1% of global economic output.

US and China lead global GDP, but huge disparity remains for passport holders

In terms of percentage of global GDP, the US and China have the lion's share, with 25% and 19% respectively, but American passport holders can access a further 43% of the world's economic output visa-free, bringing their total to 68%, whereas Chinese passport holders can only access an additional 7% visa-free, taking their total access to just 26% of global GDP.

Looking at another set of comparisons, South Korea and Russia have similar national GDPs of around 1.9% of global economic output. However, South Korea has a Henley Passport Index visa-free score of 192, giving its passport holders access to 81% of global GDP, while Russia has a score of just 118, giving its passport holders access to only 19% of the world's economy.

India fares even worse, despite having the world's fifth-largest economy: its passport holders can access just 59 destinations worldwide and only 6.7% of global GDP, of which the country's own GDP accounts for around half.

South African passport holders have access to nearly double the number of destinations Indian passport holders do - 106 compared to 59 - but those destination countries account for a mere 15% of global GDP.

Only 6% of passports worldwide give holders visa-free access to more than 70% of global economy

On a macro level, the new study by Henley & Partners reveals that just 6% of passports worldwide give their holders visa-free access to more than 70% of the global economy. And only 17% of countries give their passport holders visa-free access to more than four-fifths of the world's 227 destinations.

Passport strength and weakness can ultimately transform a country's fate

Commenting in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2023 Q1, leading global strategist and member of the Henley & Partners Advisory Board, Dr Parag Khanna, says countries are once again embracing the geopolitical adage that collecting people is collecting power, after almost three years of stagnation.

"International travel is surging to record levels, dozens of countries have launched nomad visa or golden visa schemes, and relocations are surging to take advantage of remote work opportunities, settle in friendly tax regimes, or adapt to the impact of climate change on property markets."

A good example of this is the UAE, the Henley Passport Index's great success story, which has climbed an astonishing 49 places over the past 10 years. Ranking 64th at the end of 2012, with a visa-free score of just 72, the UAE now sits in 15th place, with a score of 178 and access to nearly 70% of global GDP.

By contrast, The Gambia is the biggest faller on the index over the past decade. Ironically, it ranked immediately above the UAE at the end of 2012, in 63rd place, but while the UAE passport has soared, The Gambia's has followed a radically different trajectory. It currently sits in 77th place, having fallen 14 spots over 10 years, with a score of just 69 and access to only 5% of the world's economic output.

Most of the countries that have fallen sharply over the preceding decade have been afflicted by conflict and economic crises - Yemen, Syria, Sierra Leone, and Mali among them - a "bleak illustration of the proven link between passport power and financial stability," according to Henley & Partners.

Further movement to index likely in 2023 as new visa-free deals are inked

Looking ahead to other potential future success stories in 2023, Henley & Partners' analysts anticipate that Kuwait and Qatar will sign a visa-free deal with the EU this year - a move that will dramatically enhance both countries' scores, as their passport holders will be granted visa-free access to all 27 EU member states.

While Asian countries still dominate the very top of the index, the growing passport strength of Gulf countries has been identified as a key trend in the coming year. Commenting in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2023 Q1, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Dr Robert Mogielnicki, says they are "poised for strong and much improved economic performances".