Two US passports laying on top of map of the world

The Meaning of Passport Privilege

What is passport privilege?

Summed up, it is a series of benefits or restrictions placed on your ability to move and live globally based on the nationality of your passport. But what does passport privilege actually look like? For me, it is a series of reminders not to dream too large. It is the understanding that my body, which has eagerly consumed snippets of the world in words and images, may never find itself physically in those dreamed about places.

Passport privilege (or the lack thereof) is knowing from a young age, without the words to explain the mechanisms at work, that for all the mzungu expats and tourists I encountered from exotic places like Missouri and France, the act of of touring, of living overseas wasn’t for people like me. It was something relegated to white bodies moving in brown spaces, or white bodies moving within other white spaces; the sort of thing that happens in Europe.

Sure, Africa was mine to peruse all I wanted – with South Africa serving as the pinnacle of the African experience abroad, but beyond the Indian Ocean lived some other untouchable world. I collected tales of this world from girls I knew in boarding school. Girls who had been sent back “home” by Kenyan parents living overseas who were intent on making their daughters Kenyan (at least by education). These girls came from “the States”, Norway, the UK, each filled with stories of these distant locales that seemed to function with machine-like order compared to the vibrant chaos of everyday life in Nairobi. Street kiosks and markets replaced by orderly supermarkets and department stores, colorful matatus replaced by regulated buses and trains, and with sidewalks perpendicularly placed throughout entire cities.

Lack of passport privilege is me at 17, posturing and pandering to uncles and well-to-do nephews. I needed their help in the form of financial guarantees as I attempted to woo the U.S embassy into letting me onto American soil. I am about to graduate high school and my mother is ready to take off on an American adventure. As her youngest, I am her mutirima and set to accompany her. (Mutirima is a Kikuyu word which translates to “walking stick.” The youngest daughter in traditional Kikuyu culture is referred to as the mutirima because she is the one who will take care of her parents in their old age, i.e. be their walking stick.) But first, I needed a visa.

I clearly remember being coached by a bevy of adults on what to say and what to avoid mentioning to the immigration agents at the embassy. These were adults who had their own experiences with the American embassy. Each with a tale of glory or defeat at the hands of single human being; the last barrier to the Promised Land after having met the long list of visa application requirements.

The limitations of my passport meant waiting in a long line at 7am, one that curved down the road, filled with people who had been waiting longer than I. Among this crowd were many who had made frequent trips to this building on the outskirts of Nairobi in an attempt to prove their worth to the American government and its people.

A row of empty white chairs against a blue-gray wall
Image: iStock

Hours later, I sat in a cold bare room awaiting a number that when called would determine my fate. Lack of passport privilege is the cold, dry sweat of a teenager handing over documents to a black American woman who carefully scrutinizes each. This woman punctuates the silence with questions I already know the answers to because I have rehearsed every possible variation many times over, and because my mother has clearly labeled every document and folder that I could possibly need. 

In the aftermath, my heart beats slowly, mouth dry as I await a stamp that will either open the world to me or shut the door before I have even had a chance to peek through. Lack of passport privilege is maintaining my cool as I walk out of the cold, sterile room into the now blazing sunlight before exultingly hugging my mother, the only words I can utter, “I GOT IT! I GOT IT!”

Six harrowing months and hundreds of dollars this process took us. And what does an American need to enter my beloved country? Five things: a valid passport, a flight itinerary, a completed visa application form, two passport sized photos, and $50-$100, with a mere two business days to process it all.

My mind spins at the very thought that there are people who can simply buy a ticket to any place in the world and be guaranteed a visit.

I made it to America’s shores a week after my visa approval. It felt as if we didn’t leave NOW, our visas would lose their potency. This hard-won first visa was the first of many traded and swapped with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Little did I know at the time that I would end up spending the next decade engaged in this mad chase. I have poured thousands of dollars into DHS’s coffers while hauling a box full of documents that trace my expat history in America; a ward against any officials who may doubt my legitimacy in this country. I engage in this dance in an attempt to prolong my excursion into this new place, having developed a deep fascination with its people and things.

The disparity in passport privilege is my very first girlfriend and I, 8 years into my American adventure, planning a trip to South America. It was our gift to each other – a celebration of her matriculation from law school. I dreamed right along with her, drawing up itineraries and planning dates, all the while knowing that I could not go on this trip. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. My US visa was too old and my money too low to risk being barred from re-entry and to face the financial burden of acquiring the multiple visas I would need with a Kenyan passport.

When the time finally came, I tried to explain to her,

“See my passport, though the right color of blue, does not come from the right place.”


Passport Privilege


She, in that naive American way, replying, “We’ll figure it out.”

I later watched as she packed her bags for Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, knowing that our dreams were unmatchable. I would never be able to give her the world of international plane tickets she reveled in, listening to calls to prayer on rooftops in Marrakech or swimming in the nude off Thai beaches. All because I have the wrong passport. While my passport granted me visa-free access to 72 countries, hers gave her access to 187. While she could cross America’s red, white and blue borders without a thought, I was paralyzed with the worry, “What if they don’t let me back in?”

The reality of passport privilege goes beyond the myriad of enforced laws and restrictions placed on freedom of movement. It is also the financial costs of having a passport from the wrong place. Countries in the West, with some of the highest incomes globally, have assured their citizens greatly discounted movement across continents. Countries with significantly lower median incomes are unable to guarantee these same privileges, making travel truly a matter of wealth. Of the 70+ countries that I can access visa-free as a Kenyan, nearly half of these are in Africa and the rest are in Asia or the Caribbean. My passport labels me as an undesirable immigrant in nearly two-thirds of the world.

Passport privilege is watching my American friends not take the international trips I know they should because they do not understand what it means to hold an American passport. They are unaware of the innate power given to them to leap into new worlds with the stroke of a key and a few dollars handed over to a foreign immigration agent. Passport privilege is all the pictures I have yet to take in farflung locales. It is all the stamps missing from my blank passport pages.

Passport privilege is the difference between fear, uncertainty, expense and those who need only book a flight.

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