Regional Trends in Visa Openness

Freeing movement within Africa’s regions 

Africa’s regional economic communities (RECs) drive economic and social integration in Africa, often among countries that appear to have little in common. The African Union recognizes eight RECs and considers them building blocks for deepening regional integration on the continent.

RECs pursue integration at different levels. For example, they might cooperate on customs, the movement of people, or the development of infrastructure. Some RECs afford their members preferential terms for the cross-border trade of goods and services, while others coordinate a regional response to natural disasters or health emergencies. Many RECs cooperate politically as well. Coordinating their members’ policies in areas of common interest tends to improve sociocultural cohesion in the region, increase peace and security, and generate economic benefits from more regional trade.

Last year’s AVOI report found that in terms of visa openness, Africa’s RECs had rebounded from the pandemic, in some cases fully reversing the temporary restrictions that they had imposed to curb the spread of the virus. It is therefore especially encouraging to note that six of eight RECs improved their average AVOI score again this year. The EAC increased the most, followed by IGAD, COMESA, ECCAS, CEN-SAD, and ECOWAS. The scores of SADC and AMU are only marginally lower than last year.

​​​​​​​Looking back further, in six of eight RECs, average visa openness is higher today than it was in pre-pandemic 2019. Even SADC and AMU, whose scores are slightly lower in 2023 than they were in 2022, have a higher average score today than in 2019.

  • The EAC’s score, while lower today than before the pandemic, improved the most in absolute terms since 2022. The EAC earned the AVOI’s highest regional average score in 2017: its subsequent sharp decline can be principally attributed to the EAC having expanded the number of its member states. Because the EAC has a smaller number of states than many other RECs, even small changes to one member state’s visa openness have a large bearing on the region’s average score.
  • IGAD’s score improved the second-most in 2023. Its score had increased significantly in 2022 as well. The trend is set to continue, with IGAD member states working to adopt a single electronic visa regime. 
  • The third-highest rise in score since last year was earned by COMESA, which ranks fourth of the eight RECs. COMESA’s score this year is higher than in any year since 2017, bar 2020. As in ECOWAS, COMESA’s average visa openness has improved slowly but steadily over the past three years. Recently, Kenya announced its intention to offer visa-free entry to all African citizen before the start of 2024: this would raise COMESA's score further. In parallel, COMESA’s decision-making bodies are showing fresh energy in accelerating visa openness and implementing the bloc’s protocols on migration.
  • ECCAS slightly improved its average AVOI score in 2023. Every year since 2018, ECCAS’s score has risen in small increments, except from 2020 to 2021, when it did not change. ECCAS still ranks lowest among RECs, just behind AMU, even though six members of ECCAS are members of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), most of whose members allow each other’s citizens to enter their territory visa-free.
  • CEN-SAD’s score rose fifth-most since 2022: the bloc’s average regional visa openness is now slightly higher than in 2023 and is firmly above pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, in 2023 CEN-SAD recorded its highest score since the AVOI first measured visa openness in 2016. This ranks CEN-SAD second among RECs this year, alongside SADC. Of the eight RECs recognized by the African Union, CEN-SAD has the largest number of member states. Many CEN-SAD member states are also members of ECOWAS, which has been particularly progressive on easing travel within its territory. 
  • ECOWAS adopted its Protocol Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment in 1979, and even though its gain over 2023 was only sixth-highest among the RECs, ECOWAS continues to lead Africa’s RECs on visa openness by a comfortable margin. ECOWAS’s average score is still a little below its 2020 level, but eight of this year’s top 20 countries are members of ECOWAS and overall visa openness within ECOWAS has risen over the past three years. ECOWAS members also easily achieve the highest levels of regional reciprocity on visa openness (97%). 
  • SADC shares second spot with CEN-SAD: average visa openness among SADC member states is higher today than any year prior to the pandemic. SADC’s average in 2023 is slightly lower than in 2022 because of changes in Angola’s visa regime. In October 2023, however, Angola announced that it would expand its visa-free policy, effective immediately: SADC’s average score for 2024 will reflect this. In other news, Botswana and Namibia concluded a bilateral agreement allowing their citizens to use national identity documents other than passports at border crossings. Reciprocal visa-free entry among SADC member states remains high.
  • AMU scores slightly lower in 2023 than in 2022; it is one of only two RECs whose score fell over the last year. While slightly higher than its pre-pandemic level, visa openness within AMU is significantly down from its level in 2017.

How does each regional economic community fare?

In many ways, Africa’s RECs are the continent’s pioneers on visa openness. RECs frequently acknowledge that more trade in goods and services, greater prosperity, and more integrated and thriving communities depend on people’s capacity to move across borders smoothly and inexpensively. This has spurred several RECs to implement protocols on free movement in tandem with trade agreements, in order to open their members’ borders to the citizens of the region.

Yet the free movement of people varies considerably between RECs, and sometimes within RECs. In some cases, free movement never moves beyond a REC’s founding instruments—mobility within the region is not the object of policies or action plans, and the region’s citizens have difficulty crossing the borders of neighbouring countries. In other cases, protocols on free movement are negotiated and signed, but are not widely implemented. For a few RECs, however, the intra-regional movement of people is a key pillar of integration and their member states grant each other’s citizens entry, visa-free.

To analyze visa openness at the regional level, the AVOI averages the scores of all the countries that are members of a given REC. This metric produces an average score for each of the eight RECs recognized by the African Union. Comparing the score of Africa’s eight RECs reveals not only the degree to which the member states of each bloc open their borders to the citizens of other countries in the bloc, but to some extent, the degree to which that REC has a liberal visa policy that its members actually apply.


In some RECs, members’ visa regimes adhere closely to the principle of reciprocity: the practice of extending the same visa privileges to each other as the privileges they receive. Reciprocity makes no claims about visa openness. It merely measures the symmetry of the visa policies that countries apply towards each other’s citizens. Essentially, reciprocity can reveal the harmonization of visa policies within a REC.

Reciprocity is measured as a percentage. A REC with an overall reciprocity score of 60%, for example, is a region in which 60% of the visa policies that its members extend to each other, are the same as the visa policies they are offered in exchange. The remaining 40% of individual country-to-country policies differ. 

In this system, a high reciprocity score indicates that policies are largely harmonized. For example, Cabo Verde allows Zambians to obtain a visa on arrival, and Zambia allows Cabo Verdeans to do the same. Similarly, Algeria offers visa-free entry to Tunisians, and Tunisia offers Algerians the same. 

A low reciprocity score often indicates that policies are mismatched. For example, Central African Republic requires Burkinabe to obtain a visa before travelling, but Burkina Faso allows Central Africans to enter visa-free. 

The best scenario—the scenario shown in the RECs’ statistics in this report—is high visa-free reciprocity. This occurs when a region’s countries allow the region’s citizens to enter their territory, visa-free. 

In all cases, a REC’s reciprocity score not only reflects the domestic policies of the REC’s member states, but may be an indicator of the presence (or absence) of a REC policy 
on free movement to which the REC’s members adhere. 

How a country’s AVOI score intersects with reciprocity

Sometimes, a country ranks highly on the AVOI (the index that ranks all countries on the continent) even though its REC scores low on visa-free reciprocity. This happens when the country’s visa policy towards the citizens of African countries in general is more open than the visa policies its citizens confront when they travel within their REC.
A variation of this scenario occurs when a REC’s member state is more open to visitors from other countries on the continent than to the citizens of countries that are fellow members of their REC. In other words, the member state’s visa regime is generally more hospitable to the citizens of non-REC members than to the citizens of some of its fellow REC members. 

Situations like this can occur for different reasons. For example, the member state may belong to two RECs, one whose members have implemented the REC’s protocol to ease travel and migration, and the other that either does not have such a protocol or whose members have not yet implemented it. Or the member state may simply be reciprocating the inhospitable visa regime of countries within its REC. This is not uncommon, and shows that sometimes, visa openness goes beyond technical considerations. 

In either case, discrepancies in visa policies can flag room for improvement and encourage RECs to continue to break ground on visa openness.