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The Dying Art Of The Visa: A Personal History

12/04/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Dhruva Jaishankar

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.

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Visas in the 1980s, when I first got a passport, were more often than not rubber stamps, with the recipient's information often filled in by hand by a consular official. The 1988 visa from Sri Lanka had very basic security safeguards: a custom perforated adhesive stamp -- much like a postage stamp -- further imprinted with the seal of the issuing embassy or consulate. The 1992 visa from Greece lacked even that basic precaution, and is further remarkable in that it is in French, the traditional language of international diplomacy during the 19th and 20th centuries. Such rubber stamp visas were still widely in use well into the last decade. The 2002 Ecuador visa did include a hologram sticker, indicating the visa fee, but was otherwise quite basic.

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Stamps gradually gave way to adhesive visas, which are still in wide use. The 2002 visa from Poland did have details inscribed by hand, but included a hologram, raised printing, and other security precautions. The 2012 visa from South Korea is similar, although the individual details were printed. Such stickers also afforded opportunities to showcase national iconography. The 2010 visa from China included an image of the Great Wall, while the 2003 Hungary visa depicted an image of that country's magnificent parliament building.

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A later addition, enabled by the greater ease and declining cost of digital printing, was the applicant's photograph, which helped to facilitate identification. The 2013 Morocco visa, for example, included a mug shot, along with not one but two perforated adhesive stamps, perhaps necessary precautions given the country's position as a hub of illegal migration. The 2011 Israel visa, while also featuring a photograph, appears surprisingly low-tech, although that could be attributed to confidence in Israel's extraordinary airport security procedures.

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The evolution of the visa can be seen in these examples from the United Kingdom (1988 and 2003) and Japan (1996 and 2012). Each saw a transition over 15 years from basic rubber stamps to -- in Japan's case -- cherry blossom-themed customised and secure adhesive visas. The new UK visa may appear somewhat generic, and that is because it adheres closely to EU standards, being almost indistinguishable from the common European Schengen visa, of which the UK is still a holdout (more on that in a moment).

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Visas issued by the United States have seen subtler shifts over the past 20 years than most other countries. But these examples, from either side of the 9/11 attacks, show some of the further security precautions by the newly created Department of Homeland Security in their immediate aftermath. An earlier US visa, from the summer of 2001, is comparatively plain. By contrast, the 2007 edition features more watermarks and raised text in multiple colours. Images of the Lincoln Memorial, US Capitol and what -- from the hint of Corinthian column -- appears to be the Supreme Court building have also been added.

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In reviewing my visas from the past 25 years, few political developments are as striking as the advent of the border-free Schengen Area in Europe. In the summer of 1991, my family took a road trip from Budapest to the French Alps. This required getting individual visas for Hungary, Austria , Germany, Switzerland and France. Four years later, the Schengen Agreement came into force for a handful of countries, reflected in the visa issued by France in 1997. In time, more countries signed on. Today, that same road trip would require only a single visa, rather than five.

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A closer look at my old visas reflects a few other important political shifts from the past two decades. Czechoslovakia, which in 1992 was still one country, subsequently required two different visas following the Velvet Divorce: one for the Czech Republic (2002) and one for Slovakia (2003). It is also interesting to note what visas were notallowed. In my case, applying for a visa to travel to South Africa during the Apartheid era -- even after Nelson Mandela's release from prison --was explicitly prohibited by the Indian government.

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The colourful, illustrative visa is now increasingly scarce. The visa issued on arrival by Indonesia (2013) does its job, and has many of the security features of its predecessors, but is notable only for its dry, functional and impersonal qualities. The national iconography is basic and there is, naturally, no customisation. Singapore, meanwhile, now issues visas electronically so that I can download and print one out at home. The convenience is certainly a plus, but it makes one's passport so much less interesting.

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The humble visa, meanwhile, is already so anachronistic as to have been bestowed the ultimate nostalgic honour: being subjected to the historical fetishism of a Wes Anderson movie.

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