World’s most powerful passports: How does SA’s ‘green mamba’ compare?

13 October 2021 - 12:35
By Elizabeth Sleith
The SA passport has dropped six places in the 2021 installment of the Henley Passport Index.
Image: 123RF/Instinia The SA passport has dropped six places in the 2021 installment of the Henley Passport Index.

The South African passport has placed 58th in a ranking of the world’s most powerful travel documents, dropping six places from 2020’s 52. This is the lowest position the “green mamba” has held since the index began in 2006.

The Henley Passport Index looks at 199 of the world’s passports and ranks them according to how many of 227 destinations their holders can enter visa-free. Passports eligible for visas on arrival and electronic travel authorities (ETAs, for which one can apply online and before arrival) are also categorised as visa-free. 

According to the latest list, SA is the world’s 58th most powerful passport, giving holders visa-free access to 103 countries. These include Israel, Qatar, Ireland, Jamaica, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Argentina, Peru, Malawi, Mauritius and the Seychelles. 

When the index started in 2006, SA ranked in 37th place. The highest position SA has held was 35th, for two years in a row, in 2008 and 2009. In 2021, South African passport holders need a visa for 96 destinations.  

Northern hemisphere countries dominate the top of the list of the most powerful passports, with first place tied between Singapore and Japan. Both passports give their holders access to 192 countries.

Germany and South Korea tie in second place with 190 countries, and third place is shared by Italy, Spain, Luxembourg and Finland, with 189.

Austria and Denmark tie in fourth with 188, and France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden share fifth place (187).

The world’s worst passport is Afghanistan’s, which is in last place with just 26 countries open to its passport holders without a visa. Second and third last are Iraq (28) and Syria (29).

The index, however, does not take temporary restrictions relating to Covid-19 into account, which of course complicate access beyond whether one needs a visa. In fact, the latest report notes with concern that the past 18 months have seen the widest global mobility gap in its 16-year history.

“Countries in the global north with high-ranking passports have enforced some of the most stringent inbound travel restrictions related to Covid-19, while many countries with lower-ranking passports have relaxed their borders without seeing this openness reciprocated,” it says.

“This has created an ever-widening gap in travel freedom even for fully vaccinated travellers from countries at the lower end of the passport power ranking who remain locked out of most of the world.”

Japan, which was jointly named the world’s most powerful passport, is a case in point. Its citizens have theoretical access to a huge number of countries, but it remains closed to virtually all citizens from other parts of the world, both business and leisure travellers.