6 Reasons Why My British Passport Is My Most Valuable Possession
Almost 7 years ago my friend Libby and I were backpacking around Cuba at the beginning of our gap year. On a bus from Havana to Viñales we got talking to a young Australian, whose father had emigrated from Ethiopia to Sydney and had managed to get citizenship there. As far as travellers go, this guy was the real deal, carrying around just one small rucksack with him, totally phone-less and iPod-less, instead reading local newspapers for entertainment. He seemed a bit eccentric but was clearly very intelligent and the conversation turned to the subject of nationality. At the tender age of 18, and having had a particularly sheltered upbringing, up until that point I had completely taken for granted my British nationality. He recounted the story of the numerous challenges his father had faced to get into Australia in the first place, then adapting to the label of ‘immigrant’, and finally managing to obtain Australian citizenship and thereby protecting his descendants from the struggles entailed in the life of an immigrant. He then fished out his passport and waved it at us to illustrate his point, as he uttered a sentence that’s come back to me on several occasions since: “Your passport is your most valuable possession.”
I am lucky enough to hold a British passport, and I repeatedly take it for granted – I think most Brits do. Then something will trigger that memory and I remember just how fortunate I am. Recently I got talking to an American girl about her troubles obtaining visas to work in Europe, and it set me off again. Despite this impossibly materialistic, capitalist world we find ourselves in, I still believe my British passport is my most precious possession and here’s why:
1. Britain is part of the European Union
Belonging to the EU gives me freedom of movement and allows me to live, work, study and do whatever I please anywhere in its 28 member states. No questions asked, no visa applications, no restrictions. Along with this freedom and ease of mobility comes the incredible Erasmus programme, the Leonardo da Vinci programme and a number of other initiatives to develop and nurture us European citizens. It’s what allowed me to take a Third Year Abroad to study in Córdoba and work at Armani in Italy, and it gave me the chance to work as an au pair near Rome and do a ski season in Courmayeur, in the Italian Alps. Each of these experiences living abroad has had a profound effect on who I am, and it’s all thanks to the EU. As a non-European it is much harder to obtain a work permit here, as this American girl was saying, who is only allowed to teach English as part the BEDA Programme and not allowed to seek other work.
Update July 2016: Since I originally wrote this post in early 2014, a small majority of the UK has voted to leave the EU and therefore my status as an EU citizen is at risk. I feel absolutely devastated by these events and I’ve tried to describe my feelings in more detail in this blog post: For the Record: I Do Not Want to Leave the EU
2. Ease of travel in the Commonwealth
Although a lot of negative outcomes emerged from Britain’s colonial footprint, one legacy it did leave is the Commonwealth. A decent number of this collection of 53 sovereign states offer favourable or visa-free entry conditions for Commonwealth citizens, which include those with British passports, meaning that I don’t require a visa to visit countries such as Malaysia, South Africa, Canada whereas other nationalities do. Furthermore, in 2013 the British passport actually ranked 1st in the world (tied with Swedish and Finnish passports) in terms of freedom of travel, as it offers visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 173 countries and territories, more than any other passport. Here’s an up-to-date full ranking of each country in the world, and it’s really interesting to see which countries have which levels of freedom of travel.
3. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office
There are 268 British Embassies and Consulates in more than 170 countries, meaning in theory that I will be looked after wherever I am, in the event that I’m robbed, etc. While plenty of other developed countries offer similar protection through their diplomatic missions, when compared with a large number of developing countries with far fewer resources, the British have a huge advantage. I disagree with the idea that some nationalities are more newsworthy than others, but it is unfortunately true that if a citizen from a developed country goes missing abroad, it makes international news and therefore prompts increased efforts to recover them, which I’m certain is not the case for every nationality in the world. Holding a British passport allows me access to one of the finest international support networks in the world.
4. Immigrant vs. expat
Technically speaking, I have been an immigrant to a number of countries. However, I have never actually heard anyone refer to me as an ‘immigrant’, only ever as an ‘expat’. I don’t really need to explain the semantic differences between these two synonyms. One of these terms has developed quite negative connotations while the other is something many people dream of being. I don’t know exactly why I’ve only ever been labelled as an expat, perhaps because I’m not from an ethnic minority, but I suspect it’s because I come from a developed, prosperous country which on the world stage pulls well above its weight. For example, the United Kingdom is the 7th largest economy in the world, however in terms of population it’s only 22nd and in surface area it’s only 80th.
5. The Social System
Brits love nothing more than to complain about how the country is run and we often take our social system for granted. Free healthcare, a benefits system which, although flawed, will at least look after us (to some degree) in most eventualities, and the security of a relatively stable economy and political system. My home country is far from perfect, and I for one love to live abroad in any case, but this combination of social security systems and political stability contributes to a relatively high Human Development Index and a high Quality-of-Life Index, both of which are good to fall back on in a crisis. Not all countries look after their citizens in this way…
6. The English Language
While the vast majority of the British Empire’s colonies subsequently gained independence, one thing which hasn’t been lost is the importance of the English language internationally. Did my colonial predecessers ever imagine that they were imposing my native language onto such a huge swathe of the world? Circa 1.5 billion people are estimated to speak English. English is the lingua franca of business in the Western world and of the colossal travel industry right across the globe. Which is pretty great news for anyone who grew up, like me, in Britain, although very few of us Brits actually realise what a huge advantage this is. I can’t count the number of non-English speakers who’ve complained to me about the fact that they’re forced to study for years and years to learn a language that I just picked up naturally without even trying – it’s deeply unfair for them. While I strongly believe that more Brits should make the effort to learn foreign languages, it is true that our command of the English language opens many doors for us. (See this blog post in my languages series: ‘Why You Should Learn… English‘)
I haven’t even touched on the fact that some other countries make it almost impossible for their citizens to even obtain passports, let alone leave the country. Take Cuba as an example: Libby and I each received marriage proposals from at least 4 random Cuban men over the course of a month, because in 2007 marrying a foreigner was one way to leave the country. Just last month the Cuban government finally abolished the requirement to obtain elusive exit permits. Previous to this change, the cost of a passport, exit permit, and associated paperwork added up to around $300, which is 15 times the average monthly state salary, making it practically impossible for any Cubans to leave the country.
Another statistic that people love to pounce on is the fact that 2/3 of Americans don’t have passports and have never stepped foot outside their native country. However this is understandable given the size and the variety within their one country. I suppose this is one benefit of coming from a small, freezing cold, rainy island such as Britain – it forces you to go abroad in order to find some sun!
I feel so unbelievably fortunate to be in possession of that little burgundy paper book that I carry around with me – and I value it far more than any other material object. I own it through no merit of my own, just sheer fortune, and no Brit should take it for granted in the slightest.