Drawing on the new DEMIG VISA database which covers global bilateral travel restrictions from 1973 to 2013, this paper explores patterns and trends in international visa regimes, revealing in what ways restrictions on entry and exit have developed over time. By constructing indices of cross-regional inbound and outbound travel restrictiveness, the authors investigate the extent to which different world regions and regional unions have opened or closed to other regions and the ways in which their formation or disintegration has affected international visa regimes.
The analysis challenges the idea of a growing global mobility divide between ‘North’ and ‘South’, yielding a more complex image reflecting the multi-polar nature of international relations. While the research finds that the strongest change has been the decreasing use of exit restrictions, the level of entry visa restrictiveness has remained remarkably stable at high levels. While predominantly European and North American OECD countries maintain high levels of entry visa restrictiveness for Africa and Asia, these latter regions have the highest levels of entry restrictions themselves. Although citizens of wealthy countries generally enjoy the greatest visa-free travel opportunities, this primarily reflects their freedom to travel to other OECD countries. Visa-free travel actually occurs mostly between geographically proximate countries which are part of integrated regional blocs such as ECOWAS, the EU, GCC and MERCOSUR.
The analysis shows that visas are not ‘just’ instruments regulating entry of visitors and exit of citizens, but are also manifestations of broader political economic trends and inequalities in international power relations.