Inequality at the Border: How Visa Costs Penalize Citizens of Poor World Regions

The Covid-19 pandemic has made everybody aware that individual mobility is a major engine of social life but, at the same time, it is also politically channelled and limited. One after another, governments have shuttered borders and curtailed even short-distance trips. This is most extraordinary. In normal times, when travels are regulated less drastically, the key tools to filter international visitors are visas. While citizens of developed nations rarely have to bother about visas, as visa waivers are widespread among OECD countries (not to speak of the EU, where ID cards suffice to cross member-state borders), a lot of country-to-country journeys require travellers to apply for a visa – and pay for it.

How much does it cost to apply for a visa? On a global scale, we found that the prices of visas differ widely and top up other existing inequalities between people living in different areas of the planet. The Global Mobilities Project (GMP) has collected and released systematic information on the costs of travel visas (for tourism, work, study, family reunification, business, transit, and other motives) worldwide – that is, for all possible combinations of sending and receiving countries. The Global Visa Cost Dataset is freely downloadable on the GMP webpage (as well as a working paper analysing it). This novel dataset shows that visa costs vary according to a logic that favours citizens of richer countries. Overall, there is a strong negative relation between tourist-visa costs and sender-country Gross National Income per capita. People in Southern Asia pay on average in excess of three times more than Western Europeans when getting a visa to go abroad. We call this the ‘Matthew effect’ of visa costs: when they want to go abroad, the poor get poorer and the rich stay rich. Like in the parable of talents of the Gospel, those who have already an advantage (being from a more developed country) get an additional advantage (in terms of cheaper visas).

This is a part of a blog post published by Ettore Recchi and Emanuel Deutschmann.