April 12, 2015

The Dying Art of the Visa: A Personal History

The following article was originally published by the Huffington Post (India) on April 12, 2015. An excerpt is included below, and the full text can be accessed here.



Poor Phileas Fogg. In his fictitious journey around the world in eighty days, Jules Verne's globetrotting hero may have saved a woman from ritual immolation, been mistaken for an arch-criminal and survived an attack by Sioux warriors. But he also had to undergo the bothersome, mundane exercise of attaining a visa, whether upon arrival in Suez or in San Francisco.

It's an experience seasoned international travellers know all too well. Our wanderlust compels us to spend many wasteful hours at embassies and consulates, filling out mind-numbingly bureaucratic forms (sometimes in triplicate) and shelling out hundreds of dollars on visa applications.

But all that is fast changing. More countries are beginning to issue visas electronically or upon arrival, while others are doing away with short-term visas completely in order to encourage tourism and business travel.

Today, anyone lucky enough to be in possession of a valid American passport can take a holiday or business trip to Peru or Poland, Malawi or Mongolia at a moment's notice. The same holds true for travel to some 156 other countries. Many citizens of Europe are even better off. Finns, Swedes and Brits are able to travel on a whim to 173 countries and territories. Even some of us less fortunate have it easier than ever. As an Indian passport holder, I can now visit about 45 countries without a prior visa, and in some other cases can have visas issued electronically.

The slow death of the visa is naturally for the best in our ever globalising world. But one minor casualty is that the visa -- as a physical object -- has become something of a dying art. Visas were traditionally meant to serve several purposes. They had to easily communicate necessary information to authorities, such as validity and the terms of stay. They were often designed to prevent easy forgery. And they were occasionally used to convey aspects of a country's national character through visual symbolism and imagery. For all these reasons, the visa, in its brief heyday, was (like the modern airline baggage tag) a little-appreciated masterpiece of modern design.


Over the past 25 years, the visa's form and function has evolved, along with technological advances. Security holograms, watermarks and other such breakthroughs made visas -- like banknotes -- less susceptible to forgery. Bleeding ink, security fibres and raised printing were often added, serving both security and design functions. And various digital technologies, from machine-readable text to digital photography allowed for easier data access and identification by airline and immigration officials. A glance through visas in my old passports -- I found six going back to 1988 -- revealed some fascinating technological, political and artistic trends from the past quarter century. [Read more]