When I meet Kavya, a design student at the University of the Arts London, at a cafe in Shoreditch, she has multiple tabs open on her laptop screen. A YouTube video that explains how to pronounce cepelinai (traditional Lithuanian potato dumplings), a list of the best known museums in the country and multiple hotel booking websites: The 23-year-old is compiling documents for her upcoming Lithuanian Schengen visa appointment. “I heard the visa officials check the authenticity of the application by asking what we are excited to see and do in the country,” she explains.
As an Indian passport holder, there are several countries in Europe Kavya can visit only when she attains a Schengen visa. (Like all the visa applicants interviewed for this piece, Kayva requested anonymity in order to protect her identity.) In 1995, 26 European countries abolished their individual border controls to create a united Schengen area. When a visitor obtains a Schengen visa to any one of these countries, it also allows them entry into the other member nations.
According to her visa application, Kavya is set to travel to Lithuania at the end of June for eight days – spending a few nights in Vilnius before island hopping in Lake Baluosas – followed by a quick weekend getaway in Greece. She has an elaborate itinerary detailing her plans for each day of the vacation complete with flight tickets, confirmed hotel reservations, travel insurance, bank statements, a signed cover letter and a no-objection letter from her university – and yes, these are all compulsory documents for any Schengen country’s embassy to even consider her application.
Despite all of this research on Lithuania, Kavya has no plans to visit the country. In reality, her much-awaited summer holiday includes a week by the beach in Mykonos. Like many other Indians, Chinese, South Africans, Nigerians and citizens of other countries that require a Schengen visa, Kavya is indulging in some chaotic visa shopping.
Appointments for popular tourist destinations (like France, Italy, Spain and Greece) from the UK fill up months in advance, so travellers have found a way around the system. They book visa slots for smaller Schengen area nations like Lithuania – which have fewer visitors – to attain a Schengen visa and then continue with their original vacation plans undeterred. These applicants ensure they book refundable flights and hotels for Lithuania so they can be cancelled once the visa is confirmed. While visa shopping is not punishable by law, those doing it face the risk of deportation if an attentive customs officials spots that their Schengen visa was issued for another country which they have not visited and don’t have concrete plans to.
“On some days we had 40-50 applications for Lithuania this year, much higher than previous years. It’s a small country – of course we can tell that most people are visa shopping,” says Shuan, an official at Visa Facilitation Services Global (VFS) who requested to go by her first name.
VFS is the worldwide agency that manages visa applications on behalf of other countries; Shuan reveals that German visa officials are usually the strictest and have deported visa shoppers back to the UK. Shuan also explains that embassy officials have ways to spot these patterns. More often than not, applicants book fancy hotels or Airbnbs at the final destination and an inexpensive hostel in Lithuania – the disparity is an obvious tell. Still, a study by AXA Schengen, a European insurance company, shows that Lithuania has the highest acceptance rate for Schengen visas at 98.7 percent, further encouraging visa shoppers to take this route.
According to Sainika, 24, the deception is justified. Her partner is an American, whose powerful passport allows her to fly to Mallorca for the weekend to escape stressful assignments. As a Sri Lankan, this remains a pipe dream for Sainika.
“Travelling together is an important part of intimacy building. We have been looking forward to a summer in Provence for months, but all appointments for France are booked till August – that is ridiculous,” she exclaims, adding that she has been checking for freed up slots incessantly since the start of April. With time, people are getting bolder in admitting to visa shopping; numerous applicants confessed as much in their interviews with Shuan, emphasising that they were left with no alternative.
“Honestly, I wish we didn’t have to do this because it is more expensive and we have to jump through these hoops just to go on a holiday that we pay for,” says Anirudh, an Indian student in London. Although hotels can easily be booked with free cancellation, even partially-refundable flights can be a big investment. Anirudh and his friends are planning a vacation to the Netherlands through the Lithuanian route and have used Schengen Flight Reservation Visa to book their tickets. The website is popular among visa shoppers and undecided travellers as it creates faux flight reservations that embassy officials can confirm with the airlines. Anirudh paid £25 for flight tickets that he will use only to show at his appointment, in addition to £108 as visa processing fees.
A cursory glance at the Henley Passport Index for 2022 reveals a sinister form of modern racial apartheid being pursued through passport hierarchy. Numerous European countries including Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Spain have the most powerful passports, with visa-free access to over 180 countries. Japan, Singapore and South Korea are the only non-Western nations mentioned in the top 30. In contrast, the bottom half of the list is populated with countries home to Black and brown people, with Afghanistan coming in at the bottom of the index. “With the (colonial) empires gone, the majority of the formerly-colonised peoples of the world continue to suffer under third-rate passports,” writes Dimitry Kochenov in the i newspaper. Kochenov is a professor at the Central European University Democracy Institute and the author of Citizenship, a book that advocates for the end of passport bias.
Although human rights laws prevent overt discrimination, passports place people of colour at an unfair disadvantage by gatekeeping access through biased border control. It’s little wonder that visa shopping is becoming an increasingly popular method for eager travellers. But if people of colour have to work this hard just to go on holiday, imagine the red tape they must overcome when they are forced to flee as refugees due to political unrest. In such tumultuous times, the more powerful a passport, the higher the chances of finding safe refuge – or, in other cases, a simple vacation.