The club of 174

Having an American Passport is pretty awesome. It’s amazing. It’s ‘totes’ cool. It’s [insert another overused American English term here].

It truly is. And living outside the US has shone the little light of perspective on just how dandy it is in ways I didn’t know before.

For example: traveling. Unless you are going to a country the US is policing, having a US passport is the bee’s knees. According to an annual survey of Visa Restrictions by the illustrious Henley & Partners, citizens of the United States can enter 174 countries without a visa or with a Visa upon arrival. That’s a helluva lot.

Compare that to say, Sri Lanka or Lybia or Lebanon or Sudan. Visa restrictions left and right. Their citizens can only travel to 38 countries visa-free. Pakistan or Somalia? Only 32. Iraq & Afghanistan? Even fewer.

Sucks to be them. Unlucky losers in the lottery of life.

Not us Americans though. Well, us and four other countries’ citizens. The lucky Club of 174 . Two more are nipping at our collective heels with 173 and a whopping nine other countries are at 172. All fortunate.

“Their bees must also have knees.”

Still, I think US knees are better. I have never been hassled at a checkpoint. Call me lucky. Further, once inside a country, I can’t count how many times my ‘being American’ has slicked the metaphorical palms of the locals in some backwater establishment. Cutting queues, free entries, free-food, ‘resident’ rates, upgrades at the airports. The people of the world, they like us and they like our American Dollar (but maybe not in that order).

Granted, all these perks I get may not actually be because I have a US passport. They could come from my witty charm, impish personality and dashing good looks. Either way, being an American has been smooth sailing.

In recent memory, there have been only two times when US citizenship has not been really really nice.  The first was in the immediate aftermath of the re-election of our illustrious George W. Bush. I may never forget it.

I was in Ireland. Kinsale I think, at a Bed and Breakfast, dabbling in the Breakfast portion of the package, sitting at a communal table covered in a lacey tablecloth, eating a too-hard fried egg and picking at a dark-as-night tube of meat that might have been blood sausage. The table was crowded with people—Irish, French, Spanish, you name it—and after some awkward silence we got to talking. I was the only American at the table and as such, I was suddenly thrust into defacto ambassadorial role for the US bloc of the B&B. This frequently happens, and I frequently relish speaking on behalf of all Americans, but not that day. The election was still hot news—only a week old—and the whole of the table wanted to know only one question: why, oh, why did we Americans—for the sweet love of all that is holy and good in this world—elect Bush to a second term?

“I c’n understand the first time. Everyone is entitled to their mistakes…but…begorah…a second time? Are ye all mad?”

They were so disappointed with us. They clicked their tongues and shook their heads. I felt my stock as an American lower in their re-appraising stares. It was discomfiting.

The second time being an American was unpleasant was in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). I was visiting the War Remnants Museum, a beautiful and disturbing curation of artifacts and atrocities in the ‘War with the Americans’. While wandering between a UH-1H Huey and an A1 Skyraider, I almost ran into a Viet man with one leg and two stumps for arms. He was wearing an apron like those orange ones they wear at Home Depot, and a lopsided khaki baseball cap that only said, ‘Australia’.

He locked me in his sights immediately. He held out half his arm to me, kind of a 45 degree angle. The end of it was cut and rounded off just above where the elbow should have been. It was mostly smooth, but some of the brown yellow skin was cracking too. A little dry. I just stared at it like an idiot. What was I supposed to do?

Shake it, you dummy.

Of course. Now it seems simple. But at the time I was a bit thrown. Before I had time to shake, he dropped the limb, but somehow managed to hold his smile. “Where you from?” he asked.

I glanced down at his prosthetic leg, blunt and worn, maybe half a step up from a wooden leg. My stomach dropped. Shit. I knew where this was going.

“I’m American,” I stammered, somehow unable to claim Canada or some country not the US.

“Oh,” he said, eyelids fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings, smile still holding. “I step on American land mine when I eleven.”

As if I hadn’t seen it before, he wagged his arms a bit to show that they lacked, well, elbows and wrists and forearms and hands.

“I’m sorry about that,” I managed to squeak out.

He shrugged and continued smiling. “You want to buy brochure?”

So, yeah, other than those two times, being an American has been good with the travel. I highly recommend it. 174 countries. Dust off that passport and go see a few of them. Have an awkward conversation with a war vet, or try to explain our politics to a crowded table of foreigners. Be an ambassador.

Go travel.

Visa Restriction Fun Facts: 

The bee’s knees travelers:

174: Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom and Germany.

173: Canada, Denmark

172: Spain, France, Belgium, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Portugal, Luxembourg and Netherlands.

The other side…

37: Nepal

35 : Palestine

32: Pakistan and Somalia

31: Iraq

28: Afghanistan

PS. You can download the whole list Henley Global Visa Restrictions Index 2014


  1. Why didn’t you use your “dashing good looks” at the breakfast table? Just wave that bed head hair abs smile.

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