My foreign friends are frequently shocked to learn that only 36 per cent of Americans have a passport, and not just because 36 is such a low number. The American passport has a reputation as being one of the best in the world, allowing visa-free travel to 172 countries around the world as of 2015, which makes holders of less powerful passports hang their heads in confusion.
Americans without passports are indeed wasting one of the chief benefits U.S. citizenship bestows upon then, but the American passport is not the best passport in the world.
No, that honor goes...well, it technically goes to three different passports, but I happen to give one of them the edge more than the other.
A Three-Way Tie for World's Best Passport
The world's best passports allow for visa-free access to only one more country than the U.S. passport (which is tied, for the record, with the German, Danish and Luxembourgish passports for #2), or 173 countries. As of 2015, three global passports grant their holders visa-free travel to 173 countries: The United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden.
Why the U.K. Passport is the World's Best Passport
If three passports allow for visa-free access to 173 countries (and I'm going to go through some of the countries this doesn't include in just a second), then what sets the British passport apart? Simply put, perks that extend above and beyond visa-free access to countries as tourists.
Finland, Sweden and the U.K. are all members of the European Union (although the U.K.
is not a member of the passport-free Schengen Area and has threatened to leave the European Union; and neither the U.K. nor Sweden have adopted the euro currency), which means that holding any of these passports allows you to work and reside anywhere within the European Union, from the golden beaches of Portugal, Italy and Greece, to far north of the Arctic Circle.
In my opinion, the British Passport one-ups these others because it entitles its holders to live and work in many Commonwealth countries, for which nationals of other countries need to apply for special work visas. Of course, as you continue reading the next section of this article, you may dread the fact that you hold a U.K. passport if you're headed to certain countries of the world.
Visas and the World's Best Passport
As you can imagine, most of the countries that require holders of a British passport to obtain a visa require the same for basically all other nationals. British passport holders are required to obtain visas to enter and travel in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and Afghanistan, all of which are notoriously difficult to enter for basically all the world's travelers.
One country that recently opened itself to visa-free visitors from a number of Western countries, but not the U.K., is India. Finns (and Americans, Germans and the Luxembourgish but not, notably, the Swedes or the Danes) all enjoy visa-free access to India for short tourist visits, but as of April 2015, Brits still need to obtain tourist visas for India, which is frankly a devastatingly tedious procedure, but perhaps an appropriate one, given British history in India.
Among other atrocities, Brits did sow the seeds of out-of-control bureaucracy in India, after all.
In spite of this, the U.K. passport still ultimately retains its edge as the world's best passport, unless the United Kingdom does at some point exit the European Union, at which point many of the non-tourism benefits of the passport would evaporate and the Finnish and Swedish passports would become the best passports in the world.
(Or, of course, you really, really want to visit India.)