With his American passport, Rollo did not need a visa; he could simply walk into France. With my Indian passport, not only did I need to apply for a visa, but I also had to interview in person at a French consulate and pay a visa application fee.

It would be too vague to call this discrimination racism. The scholar Srđan Mladenov Jovanović writes about the importance of a separate term that differentiates citizenship-based discrimination from racism and xenophobia. We know that the inequality of passportism has been baked into immigration policy. But tourism has also played a big part in normalising it. Jovanović writes, “Passportism can thus be broadly defined as the speech, policy or act of a discriminative nature, in which an individual or a group of individuals are discriminated against on the basis of their citizenship, i.e. passport.” While racism discriminates on the basis of the colour of a person’s skin, passportism discriminates on the basis of the colour of a person’s passport. Passportism is the fear of Third World passports. And while there has been some recent, much-needed reckoning among travel publications about how racism impacts travel, there has been no such reckoning about passportism and its big and small humiliations.

Passportism can strike at unexpected moments. In 1999, the year after he won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Amartya Sen was on his way to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos. After his flight landed at Zurich airport, he was detained and questioned by its airport police because he was an Indian passport holder without a visa. “The police were very skeptical about my financial means,” Sen recalled later in an interview with The New York Times. Not satisfied with his US residency card or the letter from the Swiss authorities promising him a visa at the Davos airport, they asked him to produce a bank statement. Only after he convinced them that he was solvent and would not become a burden on the Swiss state was Amartya Sen allowed to enter Switzerland and deliver his speech titled “Responsible Globality: Managing the Impact of Globalisation.”

The “transit visa” is one of passportism’s slyest tools. In an eloquent essay titled “The Color of Our Passports”, Tabish Khair, an Indian writer based in Denmark, writes about the perils of not giving up his Indian passport. Khair recalls trying to board a flight from Copenhagen to an academic conference in Munich, armed with his ticket, his Indian passport, his Danish permanent visa, and the letters from his employers in Denmark as well as the conference organisers in Munich if this seems excessive to you, you have never had a Third World passport. This is how we travel.

But Khair’s connecting flight was through London, and someone had changed the rules a few days prior to his flight. It used to be that transit visas were required only if you had to leave the London airport, but now he was politely informed at the airport in Copenhagen, people with certain kinds of passports needed a transit visa simply to get out of one plane and board another in London. “The colour of my passport was wrong,” Khair writes.

What exactly, I sometimes wonder, do immigration officials think will happen in the usually hectic hours that we have to transit from one airport to another airport or from one plane to another plane? It is as if we are novice monks who must wear transit-visa chastity belts lest the brief glimpse of Paris or London suddenly unbuckle any commitment we have to our current lives. The annals of Third World travellers are full of stories like these, and they are minor humiliations compared to the trauma and uncertainty that mark the lives of many refugees and immigrants. But the passportism that lies under this wide range of pain is based on the same power hierarchy.

Unlike many other forms of discrimination, it is a hierarchy that can be mathematically ranked, on the basis of the access provided to other countries and the time spent in applying and going through the visa process. The Covid-19 pandemic initially wreaked havoc on passport hierarchies in April 2020, the US passport fell dramatically in the ranking, but as vaccination rates entrenched the rich-poor gaps between countries, it recovered. On the other hand, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have been steadily climbing the passport index a sure sign of shifting geopolitical realities.

Even as the Indian passport encounters passportism outside its borders, the Indian immigration authorities practice passportism towards citizens of countries they deem unfriendly or dangerous. Visitors from many African countries and most Muslim countries, as well as those who can trace their heritage to Pakistan, routinely find their visa applications rejected, especially as the right-wing government that has been in power since 2014 grinds down civil liberties. Thus the passportism hierarchy is not just a simple East-West binary; it is more akin to a caste system with multiple strata, clearly marked in a descending order. Many Third World countries including India have internalised passportism. In Africa, despite the African Union’s attempt to launch a continent-wide common passport, many of the richer countries make it harder for fellow Africans to visit them as compared to European visitors. This is particularly ironic given that many of Africa’s borders are arbitrary lines drawn on a map of the continent during the Berlin Conference of 1884, in which the continent was carved up among the colonial powers.

Passportism has also opened up new avenues in global real estate and finance. Take, for instance, Arton Capital, which maintains the Arton Passport Index: “the only realtime global ranking of the world’s passports, updated as frequently as new visa waivers and changes are implemented.” Arton Capital focuses on “impact investment programs for residence and citizenship”; in other words, they help wealthy people in Third World countries figure out how to acquire First World passports through real estate and other financial investments. At the most obvious level, Arton Capital seems to be an immigration agency for HNWIs people who are so wealthy that in the time it takes to write out high-net-worth individuals, they could have made a few million.

But beneath that somewhat benign disguise is an active financial channel that connects expensive investment projects in First World countries with eager Third World investors. Golden visas and economic citizenship programmes are an easy source of cash for countries that have strong passports. In return, the country gains a particularly obedient set of investors their goal is not so much to make a profit as it is to buy their way into a richer country. Arton calls this a “global citizenship movement.” It is in the interest of assisting its investors to make the most up-to-date decisions that Arton Capital maintains a passport index.

In much the same way that, in the United States, parents of school-age children will try to rent or buy homes in zip codes with “good school districts,” billionaire migrants can now shop around the globe for real estate that will enable their access to the best educational and lifestyle prospects. Australia, the United States, and Canada all have lucrative programmes that trade passports or permanent visas for investment, targeting wealthy migrants fleeing China, Brazil, India, and Turkey. Debt-laden European countries, such as Portugal, Spain, and Greece, offer an alternative to those who would prefer their economic citizenship with a discount. In fact, according to Andrew Henderson, who runs the website Nomad Capitalist, the pandemic was a time of fire sale for the “immigration investment industry,” with several countries lowering their prices or even launching special deals. Thus, passportism has helped create side hustles for the countries that benefit from being at the top of the passport hierarchy.

Excerpted with permission from Airplane Mode: A Passive-Aggressive History of Travel, Shahnaz Habib, Westland.