Let me be clear, I don’t hate the idea of being an Indian. I’m determinedly nation-agnostic, and as such nationality is of no consequence to me. I hate all the little privileges that I miss out on as a result of my Indian Passport, and by extension my ethnicity.
Statistically speaking, according to Henley & Partners Visa Restriction Index, an Indian Passport ranks number 74th in terms of Visa restrictions. It might not be bottom of the pile, but it’s a helluva long way from the top.
I knew that backpacking was a cultural staple for certain countries in the west. I always envied that but I never actually thought it was something I’d be capable of. Growing up in a middle-class family in India, the biggest vacation we ever had was a short budget-controlled 5 day trip to Goa. So I never actually thought I’d be able to finance my own travels in my 20s.
After I earned the means of being able to travel, but before I’d actually set foot out of the country, I spent a considerable amount of time on research.
I luxuriated and fed on dreams of independent solo travels via the dozens of blogposts I consumed regularly. These blogposts unanimously followed a similar story:
“I got bored of life. I always wanted something more. So I quit my job, sold my things, and set off with a one-way ticket in my hand.”
I could relate to the sentiment behind that. Ever since I could remember, that anxiety and uneasiness of a settled life had always shadowed me. But what really got me all moon-eyed was the oft used term “one-way ticket.” Boy that got me all swooning victorian style! Someone bring the smelling salts!
But as I was to soon learn, traveling wasn’t going to be as easy for me. And that’s where my Indian Passport comes in. Below, I’ve listed out a few incidents that really highlighted the great burden I was carrying in the form of a small green leatherback passport.
Encouraged by the blogposts I’d read, I reinforced myself with a one-way ticket and firmly walked over to the Passport control in the Kolkata Airport. I was about to go off on a long backpacking tour of Asia, starting with Bangkok. I’d made a flight ticket for Bangkok, and a successive flight ticket from Bangkok to Cambodia because I knew that to get a visa-on-arrival to Bangkok I also needed an exit ticket. You see, I’d done my research.
However, the officer stopped me on my track and told me that if I couldn’t show him a return ticket, he wouldn’t let me through. He needed proof that I would return to India. If you’ve backpacked for an extended period before, you probably know how much of a chokehold it is to plan out your entire trip in advance.
I didn’t have the time or inclination to plan out my entire itinerary right there. So I decided to book a proxy ticket right there standing in queue. Within 2 minutes I produced a return ticket from Cambodia back to Delhi, even though I never intended to use it. The officer was satisfied and he let me through.
You see, on an Indian Passport you don’t have the luxury of being all spontaneous and shit. Traveling is expensive enough, but then heap on the money you’re made to bleed just for doing it on your terms! No wonder I hardly ever found South Asians backpacking.
I had to buy a plane ticket worth Rs. 10,000 (approx. $150), just so I could get on with my travels. I called it the “Spontaneity Tax.”
Another incident that painfully highlighted the disadvantage of an Indian Passport came around at the immigration desk in Bali. This was my first travel ever, so in my anxiety I’d booked all my hotels already. That turned out to be quite fortunate.
While going through the immigration desk in Bali, I was asked for my passport. Standard procedure. So were everyone else. After the passport I was asked for my hotel booking. Again, standard enough. Looking around, I could see that some were being asked to reveal their hotel bookings and some weren’t. So it seemed fairly arbitrary and perfunctory. The officers weren’t actually going through the bookings, just taking a quick glimpse and letting people through.
However, when they asked me for my bookings, they went through all of it in detail. Furthermore, they asked me to account for every single one of the days I’d spend in Bali. As I stood there, shuffling through booking details in my phone, people around me could simply hold up their passports and waltz in!
When I told some of my travel friends in Bali that I’d had to book all my hotels in advance, they were positively horrified that I could be asked to do such a thing!
In the grand scheme of things, I know this isn’t a big issue, but discrimination is discrimination, regardless of how big or small. And every time that happens, it leaves you feeling just a little less than.
During my travels, I met a number of people who raved about a “Working Holiday Visa”. These individuals would travel around Asia and then settle down in Australia for a year with that golden ticket. This visa granted them access to live and work in Australia for a year, gain some work experience, earn good money, and then go back.
I briefly traveled with a girl who had her Australian working holiday visa, and was gonna’ go soon after her travels. She enthusiastically asked me to apply for the visa as well so we could go together. I was quite enthusiastic about it, and I agreed. However, in the back of my mind, I knew it was too good to be true. If such a visa really did exist, why is it that I hadn’t ever heard of it before in India?
When I looked it up online I learnt why. Indian Passport holders weren’t eligible for a working holiday visa to Australia. In fact, an Indian Passport rendered you ineligible for a working holiday visa just about anywhere in the world.
These are just a few drawbacks of an Indian Passport based on my relatively young traveling experience. I’m sure I’ll come across many other instances to fuel my bitterness as I travel more.
I’ve established how having an Indian Passport pretty much sucks, especially if you want to be a long term traveler. While it’s important to understand how you’re disadvantaged on a world stage, it’s also crucial to rise above it. These are a couple of things I’ve started doing to overcome the challenges of an Indian Passport.
The first time around, in my panic, I booked the cheapest flight ticket back to India. It was a proxy ticket. But it set me back Rs. 10,000. I ought to have booked a refundable ticket that was twice as expensive. I could have later canceled it the moment I was allowed to get through.
Before I go to any country, I first find the cheapest possible hotel in the country via booking.com. And then I book the hotel for the entire duration of my stay. I use booking.com because it doesn’t charge your credit card immediately. Furthermore, it gives you the option of canceling the booking up to one week in advance. So you can make the booking, and then cancel it immediately. You don’t have to pay but you have the confirmation tickets to show to those grumpy officials!
However, be very careful with this. If you cancel the booking within a week of the due date, your card will be charged 50% of the total amount. That happened to me while I was going to Myanmar. Luckily I’d only booked the hotel for 2 days so the damage wasn’t too bad.
Having an Indian Passport can really suck. It may even feel belittling at times. But if you really want to travel and see the world, that’s a small price to pay.
Jump through all necessary bureaucratic hoops if you have to, just get yourself on that plane!