The overlooked issue of passport privilege

To get at the bottom of what passport privilege really looks like, Trinity News spoke with students whose passports have been a constant barrier to their travel and immigration plans

Travel is often viewed as a core part of the student experience at Trinity. From society trips to spontaneous weekend flights with budget airlines, travel is integral to the Irish and European university experience. 

For most students at Trinity – Irish, EU, American, Canadian, Australian, British, Swiss, etc. – travel is accessible and is as simple as flying to the destination and quickly going through border control. But for others, travel is a privilege locked behind bureaucracy, colonial border policies, and geopolitics. Passport privilege is an often overlooked issue, especially in Trinity where the majority of the student body is Irish, EU/EAA, British, or from a country with significant passport power such as the US, Canada, Australia, etc. But what about the international students who come from countries where one’s ability to travel is restricted by their passport? Trinity News sat down with students from India, China, Russia, and Turkiye to explore their college travelling experiences.

Sanjana, an Indian student from the United Arab Emirates, explained the bureaucratic challenge she faced to even come to Ireland: “I applied for [a visa] last year, it was pretty long, I had to get a lot of different documents.” Using her hands, she showed that the documents were about two and a half iPhones thick. 

She continued: “Yeah, I wasn’t sure how long it would take to process it. Every week, the consulate in Abu Dhabi would give updates on different applications that were processed, so every week, I would check to see if my number was there.” She continued: “It was a bit like a waiting game. I only got my visa, a week before the orientation week started. It was very extensive. And while they had a list of documents that they said you needed, I’d also hear from a lot of different sources that ‘oh, maybe we should have a few other sets of documents just in case.’” The Irish Consulate-General visa process in Abu Dhabi was evidently a stress-inducing one. With long processing times and a risk of applicants’ visas being delayed, students could miss weeks of classes, or even be flat-out denied. 

There is also the element of travel costs, as Sanjana explained: “A lot of people did book their tickets in advance, even if they hadn’t got their visa. But I kind of put it off because I wasn’t sure.” She then “had to buy a ticket last minute and it was incredibly expensive.”

Fem, a Turkish student, echoed this struggle over visa applications: “I was trying to get a student visa so that I [could] do sixth year in [Ireland], finish secondary school, and then go on to the college application process, it’s just very difficult, it’s very long, you give them all of your transcripts, your birth certificate, all the previous visas you’ve ever had, the properties you might have in your name, if you do have any of those.” She said that “every single [piece of] personal information, every single address you’ve ever lived in, all of these things you have to give over.”

The visa process for Ireland is evidently extraordinarily invasive, a procedure which American, Australian, British, and EU citizens aren’t subjected to. 

Aryan, who hails from India but who has lived in Dubai and Poland remarked: “Just applying for any kind of visa, not just a student [or] tourist visa … heavily depends on what passport you’re holding. I found that [waiting times] depend on the country I’m applying from.” He said that “before [he] shifted to Poland … [he] used to live in Dubai [and] the waiting times would be really low”. Noting: “Like, maybe, I’d get it within a week or two weeks. But in India however … I think [a visa] to Europe took about a month once.” 

The visa process is also very strict about how much time the visa gives you in the country. Jingmiao, a student from China, recalled: “Once you get your visa and you go to Ireland, you have to apply for your IRP card within 30 days, so it’s actually usually very hard to cooperate with your flight date and the day you apply for visa.”

Students who have to apply for tourist visas to leave Ireland often miss out on the travel opportunities that the majority of students at Trinity can otherwise access. “I have to apply for a tourist visa. I just finished [my application for a study visa which was [a] really long process last year and that was very exhausting.” said Sanjana. 

While all international students must pay the 300 euro registration fee for immigration, students who require visas to even come to Ireland have to pay that fee as well, which adds up. For some students, however, there are even further barriers. Due to the war in Ukraine, Russian students are facing new obstacles to travel, and hostility from immigration officials in certain countries. Nastya, who holds a Russian passport, recalled the time her Russian friend went to Estonia: “When you get a Schengen visa, you can visit all Schengen countries, which are all European countries, plus Switzerland, except Ireland. And when [my friend] went to Estonia, a European country, to go back to Russia, they told her she cannot go through.” She said that “it doesn’t make any sense and they did not allow her to go to Estonia even though … it’s a Schengen zone … basically they put a stamp on her passport saying she tried to enter the country illegally.”

“Me and my friends are planning a trip to Poland, and two of my friends can’t go because they have Russian passports”

Nastya further expanded on travel difficulties remarking: “My experience [with travelling] is good because I’m a resident [of Spain]. [But] right now, me and my friends are planning a trip to Poland, and two of my friends can’t go because they have Russian passports … [That one friend] just has to watch the stories of how his friends are having fun … it’s just very sad.”

Each interviewee also pointed to a takeaway they would like readers to get from the article.

Aryan offered advice to students in a similar situation to him: “You just need to make sure that you plan out exactly what documents you need well in advance. And also book your appointment with the embassy or whatever company issues [the visa] really well in advance. And just be clear when you plan on flying, stuff like that.”

Jingmiao agreed, encouraging students in her position not to limit their educational opportunities because of travel documentation: “If you know that you are going to study abroad, that means your visa will be an issue so you have to consider [this]. But just go for it. Don’t be afraid.”

Sanjana, conversely, addressed students who aren’t in a similar situation: “People don’t realise it, I guess. We do live in different worlds. We can’t just look for cheap tickets on Ryanair. It is a very different world.”

Think about your friends with weaker passports when you’re going on trips and maybe try to be more inclusive”

Nastya similarly implored students to be mindful of other students: “I feel, just don’t be hostile to people depending on their nationality. Think about your friends with weaker passports when you’re going on trips and maybe try to be more inclusive”. She said though “it’s cool to try and explore different parts of Europe”, students should “also try to do some domestic Irish tours or just ask their friends if it’s okay, what they feel about it”. She added: “I feel like travelling is very important. It’s a very big source of happiness for everyone.”

Fem agreed saying: “I know when you’re born into something like this, you don’t necessarily realise how big of a privilege it is, but just acknowledge the fact that it’s a very big privilege to have a passport that allows you to do certain things … [and] use it to the best of your ability.”