January’s Visa-Free Digest 2018

A comprehensive analysis of last month’s changes to visa-free travel across the globe.

Planning your next trip abroad? You will find this Visa-Free Digest especially helpful if you’re about to travel to or from these countries and territories:

EUROPE Named relevant countries: Belarus, Hong Kong, Russia, China, European Commission, Ukraine, Schengen Area, Georgia, Moldova, Antigua and Barbuda, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom
AMERICAS Name relevant countries: Canada, Romania, Bulgaria, United States, Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea, Cambodia, Ecuador, Spain, Schengen Area
MIDDLE EAST Named relevant countries: Iran, United Arab Emirates, Chile, China, Rwanda
ASIA Named relevant countries: Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, China, Schengen Area, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Japan, Mexico, United Kingdom, United States, India, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates, European Union
AFRICA Named relevant countries: Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Morocco, Malaysia

Check our December’s Visa-Free Digest for more updates.


On 7 December, the Belarusian House of Representatives of the National Assembly ratified an agreement, signed in April between Belarus and Hong Kong, establishing mutual visa-free travel rights for their citizens. Under the terms of the agreement, ordinary passport holders of Belarus and Hong Kong are entitled to travel within each other’s territories for a period of up to 14 days without needing to apply for a visa.

On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree extending the country’s visa-free regime to allow nationals from 77 countries to travel to Belarus for a period of ten days when crossing the border at certain key points, including Minsk National Airport, the Brest Oblast, and the Grodno Oblast. The regime, intended to replace Belarus’ February 2017 five-day visa-free regime, was announced for 1 January 2018. A draft version of the decree had been presented by the Deputy Prime Minister four days prior.

On 11 December, the Interior Ministry of Russia confirmed the country intends to commence a fingerprinting and photographing programme for all foreign nationals entering Russia visa-free and remaining therein for a period in excess of 30 days. The programme is due to commence on 1 July 2019, and will thus not affect travellers entering Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, scheduled for June and July 2018.

On 20 December, Russia’s Ambassador to China, Andrei Denisov, announced that the two nations were in the process of concluding an agreement on visa-free travel for visitor groups, where such groups amount to three visitors or more. Currently, Russians may travel to China for up to 30 days when in groups of five or more, while Chinese tourists may travel to Russia in groups of five or more for a period of 14 days. These limiting provisions prevent many families, usually travelling in groups of three, from making use of the visa-free regime.

On 27 December, Russia’s Cabinet approved a much-publicised bill to allow visa-free travel for visitors coming to Russia to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Under the bill, foreign football fans holding Fan IDs (personalised spectator cards) and tickets to the World Cup may enter Russia visa-free up to 10 days prior to the World Cup’s first match, which will be held on 14 June 2018, and remain in the country up until 15 July 2018, when the final will be played. Approval for the bill must also be obtained from Russia’s Lower House of Parliament.

On 27 December, Grigory Karasin, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, said that Russia and Belarus were in the process of re-implementing a control-free zone on the border between the two nations. Border controls were introduced between Russia and Belarus in early 2017, when Belarus enacted laws enabling citizens from 80 countries to access Belarus for short stays visa-free. The Deputy Foreign Minister said Russia and Belarus were aiming to find a solution by the Spring of 2018 – prior to the FIFA World Cup.

On 20 December, in its First Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism, the European Commission issued a warning to the Ukraine, stating that the nation must act quickly to implement anti-corruption reforms, or risk losing its visa-free travel rights to the Schengen Area. The Report also encompassed benchmarks for Georgia and Moldova, which received visa-free travel in March 2017 and in April 2014 respectively. The Ukraine received visa-free travel rights to the Schengen Area in June 2017.

On 21 December, the Ukraine approved a draft agreement establishing visa-free entry for up to 90 days in any 180-day period for the citizens of Antigua and Barbuda. The approval follows a unilateral move on the part of Antigua and Barbuda that saw it launch 30-day visa-free travel for citizens of the Ukraine. The approval authorises Valeriy Chaly, the Ukraine’s Ambassador to Antigua and Barbuda, to sign the agreement with Antigua and Barbuda, whose terms will be implemented by both nations.

31 December saw the coming into force of the visa-free agreement for short stay visits for citizens of the Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates holding biometric passports. The agreement allows stays of up to 30 days, and was welcomed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who signed the relevant Memorandum of Understanding with the UAE on 2 November 2017 and who tweeted: “Ukrainians are now allowed to travel to 85 countries without a visa.”

On 22 December, the United Kingdom announced that, starting from October 2019, it would change the colour of its passports from burgundy to blue, as an expression of its “independence and sovereignty” in light of its departure from the European Union. The change is due to take place only if Brexit formalities are completed as expected by 29 March 2019. Critics of the decision noted that the United Kingdom could have changed passport colour at any point, as no EU law dictates passport colour. Rather, burgundy is generally used because of a recommendation in a non-binding 1981 European Council resolution.


24 December saw the coming into force of the visa-free agreement penned by Grenada and Russia on 20 September 2017 on the margins of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly. The agreement, envisioned in a 4 January 2017 meeting between Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell and Russian Ambassador Nikolay Smimov, makes visa-free entry available for those travelling for 90 days within any 180-day period. The agreement applies to Grenadians and Russians with valid international passports, including ordinary and diplomatic passports.


On 1 December, Canada lifted visa requirements for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, a move that obeys the principles of reciprocity adhered to by the European Union and the countries with which the EU holds visa-free travel treaties. Like all other citizens benefiting from visa-free travel when flying to Canada, Romanians and Bulgarians must still complete the country’s online electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA).

On 4 December, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld President Donald Trump’s Presidential Proclamation 9645, which, on 24 September 2017, modified Executive Order 13780 and banned citizens of Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen from entering the United States. The restrictions on such citizens vary slightly according to their nationality. Officials from Venezuela and their close relatives, as well as citizens from North Korea, were also made part of the ban.

On 6 December, the United States announced it would restrict visas for certain members of Cambodia’s ruling political party, in response to suppression of the country’s chief opposition party. On 7 December, Cambodia urged the United States to reconsider its decision, but a spokesperson from the US State Department noted that this would require a return to democratic activity in Cambodia.

On 15 December, the United States announced new requirements for those taking part in the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), which allows citizens from 38 nations to remain in the United States without a visa for a period of 90 days. One requirement is for VWP countries to refer to US data on anti-terrorism when people from third countries cross their national borders. Another is for VWP countries with a two percent or higher rate of visa overstays to launch public campaigns on the consequences of overstays, including the possibility that visa-free travel will be denied to overstayers in the future. A third requirement is for countries to assess the threats posed by those who work at or are otherwise employed by airports, especially where those airports have direct flights to the United States.

On 19 December, the President of Ecuador said he was hopeful that Spain would support his nation in its goal of attaining visa-free travel to the Schengen Area. President Lenin Moreno toured Spain in late December, with visa-free travel a key point on his agenda.

Middle East

In mid-December, in the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Khorramshahr, Iran inaugurated a pilot visa-free travel scheme for foreigners entering the Arvand Free Trade Zone. The zone, located in southern Iran close to the border with Iraq, is a key area for investment, and seeks to attract tourists.

In October 2017, the head of the Arvand Free Zone highlighted the area would soon open its first visa-free health tourism centre. A similar scheme is expected to be implemented on 11 February 2018 for the city of Shalamcheh, which also borders Iraq.

On 29 December, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular, Parliamentary, and Iranian Affairs, Hassan Ghashghavi, said that the Islamic Republic was ready to sign agreements on visa-free travel with any country willing to establish reciprocal regimes. The announcement can be viewed in the context of a historic change in Iran’s open-border policy, marked by the announcement, in 2015, that foreigners from 190 countries could visit Iran on a 30-day extendable visa-on-arrival scheme applicable to arrivals in certain Iranian airports.

Starting on 16 December, citizens of the United Arab Emirates and of Chile received mutual visa-free travel rights. Visa-free travel applies to those visiting for up to 90 days, and holding ordinary passports. A Memorandum of Understanding reflecting the agreement was signed by the two nations on 12 November 2017.

The United Arab Emirates and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on 19 December agreeing that UAE citizens travelling on ordinary passports would be able to travel visa-free to China for a maximum period of 30 days. The memorandum is due to come into force on 16 January 2018.

On 30 December, the United Arab Emirates and Rwanda signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the Rwandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The memorandum enables citizens of the UAE to travel without a visa to Rwanda, whether they hold diplomatic, VIP, or ordinary passports. Rwandans can however only visit the UAE visa-free if they hold diplomatic passports.


On 5 December, Kyrgyzstan and Serbia signed an agreement on the establishment of a mutual 90-day visa-free entry regime for ordinary passport holders. The agreement was signed by the two nations’ foreign ministers, Serbian Ivica Dacic and Kyrgyz Erlan Abdyldaev. “Cancellation of visas is the best way to express friendship in a formal way,” said Minister Dacic.

In mid-December, Hainan, located in China, announced it would be exploring visa-free and visa-on-arrival policies. Hainan is one of China’s southern provinces and a key destination for cruises. It is hoping to further improve its stance in the tourism market.

On 28 December, China extended its visa-free travel regime for those transiting through Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei from a maximum stay of 72 hours to 144 hours (six days) or less.

The regime applies to citizens of 53 countries including the member states of the Schengen Area, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and is restricted to those travelling by air, train, and ship and entering through any of the following: Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing West Railway Station, Tianjin Binhai International Airport, Tianjin International Cruise Home Port, Shijiazhuang Zhengding International Airport, and Qinhuangdao Port. A similar regime was established in January 2016 for Shanghai and 16 other Chinese cities.

On 19 December, the Bangladeshi High Commissioner to India said that Bangladesh and India were both involved in a World Bank project to create a travel regime similar to that which exist for citizens of the European Union. He revealed that the two nations were discussing passport-free travel, with only Indian Aadhaar card numbers and Bangladeshi national registries needed at the border between the two countries.

On 25 December, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Kairat Abdrakhmanov, said that the country was awaiting the United Arab Emirates’ ratification of the visa-waiver agreement signed by the UAE on 23 May 2017. According to the agreement, holders of Kazakh ordinary passports would be allowed entry into the UAE without a visa for a period of 30 days, reciprocating current provisions in Kazakhstan’s law allowing 30-day visa-free entry for citizens of the UAE.

A previous agreement only encompassed holders of diplomatic and service passports. “It is expected that all Emirates of the UAE will ratify the agreement at a local level soon and inform us of it,” confirmed the Minister. On that same day, Mr Abdrakhmanov also stated that the European Union would soon consider easing visa entry processes for citizens of Kazakhstan.


On 1 December, Angola and Mozambique enforced a visa-free agreement signed on 17 November 2017. Under the agreement, Angolan and Mozambican citizens may cross borders without a visa for stays of up to 30 days.

On 1 December, the agreement signed between Angola and South Africa on 22 November 2017 came into force, establishing a visa-free regime for holders of ordinary passports. The regime applies to visits lasting up to 30 consecutive days, and constituting no more than 90 days total visiting time every year.

On 24 December, Equatorial Guinea closed its border with Cameroon, not long before a coup against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema that took place on 27 to 28 December 2017 and that allegedly found support amongst Cameroonian mercenaries. The border closure remains in effect, with no resumption of free movement in sight.

Only a few months prior, in October 2017, Equatorial Guinea had inaugurated visa-free travel for all member states of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), which includes Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.

On 27 December, Morocco and Malaysia inaugurated visa-free travel for holders of diplomatic, official, and ordinary passports, for visits of up to 90 days. The original agreement launching the travel regime was signed by the Secretary General of Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, Datuk Ramlan Ibrahim, and Morocco’s Ambassador to Malaysia, Mohammed Reda Benkhaldoun, on 19 July 2017