From when did travel become documented?
The historical equivalent of travel documents were the passport-type letters issued to the messengers of kings confirming their loyalty to a particular king and requesting a safe passage to the destination. The earliest known reference is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
King Artaxerxes I of Persia issued a letter to his official travelling to Judea, requesting the governors of the adjoining lands to provide him safe passage. Similarly, the Islamic Caliphates required travellers to pay taxes, but travel was usually unrestricted. Although the concept of closed borders emerged with the concept of nation states, travel restrictions only came into existence during the First World War. Since then, most countries have developed various systems of identification for distinguishing between people who should be allowed to enter or leave their territory.
The present international standard is the visa, which indicates that a person is authorized to enter a country. The visa can be a document or, in most cases, simply a stamp on the traveller's passport.
Does every person entering a foreign country require a visa?
Visa requirement vary widely, particularly depending on the relations between two countries. Conditions like security risks, the economic condition of the immigrant's country and the risk of overstaying play important roles in the approval or rejection of visa applications.
Some countries like Canada, Brazil, CIS countries and Japan have reciprocal visa arrangements, meaning that if the other country requires their citizens to have visas they will do the same, but if their citizens are allowed free access to the other country, they will also allow free access.
Are there any free borders?
A few countries allow citizens of a preferred group of countries to enter without visa. For instance, the citizens of EU member-countries can travel to and stay in all other EU countries without a visa. The US also has a visa waiver programme allowing citizens of 36 countries to travel to the US without a visa.
Any citizen of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six Arab states, can enter and stay as long as required in any other GCC member state. Similarly, citizens of member countries of the East African Community face no visa restrictions within these countries. India also allows citizens of Nepal and Bhutan to enter without visa if they enter India from their country. Otherwise, they are required to have a passport.
What are the different visas?
Every country grants specific visas for any particular purpose of entry. The types of visa and their validity periods vary from country to country. For instance, India grants 11 types of visas — tourist, business, journalist, transit, entry (for a person of Indian origin visiting India) and so on. India also grants tourist visas on arrival to nationals of Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore.
What is a common visa?
Usually, a visa allows a foreign national to travel only within the country which has issued the visa. However, there are international agreements that allow a foreigner to travel to a group of countries on a common visa.
For instance, a person having the Schengen visa can travel without any restriction in the 25 member countries.
Similarly, the central American single visa allows a person to have free access to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The East African tourist visa also means the approval of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. During the 2007 Cricket World Cup, 10 Caribbean countries issued a common visa, but the system was discontinued after the event.
Is exit from a country always free?
Some countries require an exit visa too. Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have to show exit visas before leaving the country. This visa is a clearance from the employer. Any foreigner overstaying in Russia has to obtain an exit visa stating the reason for overstaying. Uzbekistan and Cuba citizens also require exit visas if they wish to travel abroad.
Contributed by: Our Special Correspondent
Date: May 31, 2010