Visa openness progress, 2016-2023

Easier travel for Africans

Ever since 2016, when the AVOI was first published, the index has used three principal indicators to measure visa openness in Africa. This year’s edition of the AVOI shows all three indicators having made a net improvement since they were first measured eight years ago.

The first indicator is visa-free travel, the gold standard of visa openness. In 28% of country-to-country travel scenarios within Africa, African citizens do not need a visa to cross the border. This is a marked improvement since 2016, when visa-free entry was only present in 20% of scenarios. This indicator of visa openness—where no visa of any kind is required—has achieved its highest result ever.

The second indicator refers to visas on arrival. The incidence of visa-on-arrival regimes has changed little over the years. In 2016, African travellers could obtain a visa on arrival in 25% of travel scenarios. Today, the figure is 26%. But the apparent stagnancy of the result is misleading. In fact, some countries moved from requiring a visa to offering a visa on arrival: this caused the incidence of visa-on-arrival regimes to rise. Other countries moved from a visa-on-arrival regime to a visa-free regime: this caused the incidence to fall. In both cases, however, the evolution eased travel for Africans. 

The third indicator is travel that requires Africans to obtain a visa before travelling. Like the metric for visa-free travel, the metric for visas before travel has improved greatly since 2016. It affects 46% of country-to-country travel scenarios today, down from 55% eight years ago. Furthermore, in many more scenarios today than in 2016, Africans have access to an e-visa. While an e-visa does not replace visa-free travel, it greatly reduces the burden of travel nonetheless.

The consequence of all three indicators having improved to this extent is that in 2023, Africa’s 54 countries averaged their highest AVOI score to date. The average of the continent’s top 10 performers also recorded a new high.

In all, 15 countries improved their score since last year: three of them figure in the top 10, another three are among the top 20, four countries are in the middle tranche of performers, and five countries are among this year’s bottom 15 performers. This distribution is encouraging: it shows that visa openness has improved at all levels of performance. 


Which countries climbed the most?

Since the AVOI’s first edition, 36 countries have improved their score. Furthermore, the number of countries with an e-visa regime has more than doubled (it now numbers 24). Africa’s visa policies vis-à-vis the citizens of the continent are more liberal today than ever before. 

Six of the 10 countries that progressed the most since 2016 are in West Africa. Another two countries are in East Africa, and two countries are in Southern Africa. The largest nominal increase in AVOI score since 2016 is recorded by Ethiopia, which ranks 19th of 54 countries (down from 17th in 2022). Ethiopia’s score today is lower than in 2019–2020.

The second-largest nominal increase since 2016 is recorded by Benin. Benin is one of the most visa-open countries in Africa: it has been one of the top rankers since 2018. 

Following Ethiopia and Benin as countries whose score has risen the most are Ghana, Nigeria, and The Gambia. All three countries have significantly opened their visa regime since 2016, albeit mostly from a low base. It is notable that all three countries are members of ECOWAS, the regional economic community with the highest regional average and the most visa-free reciprocity among member states. Fellow ECOWAS members Senegal and Sierra Leone are two more countries whose AVOI score has improved markedly since 2016. 

Of the five countries whose score rose the most since 2016, The Gambia has ranked first (with others) since the AVOI’s 2020 edition. Ghana and Nigeria share fifth place. Ghana requires a visa ahead of travel from the citizens of only two countries, and applies a visa-free policy to half of the remaining countries and a visa-on-arrival policy to the other half. Nigeria’s rise in the ranks follows Nigeria dropping its requirement that African citizens obtain a visa before arrival. Instead, Nigeria grants the citizens of 17 countries visa-free entry and offers the citizens of 36 countries a visa on arrival. 

Rwanda, one of two East African countries at the top of the AVOI, is the ninth-most-improved country since 2016. Rwanda recently adopted a visa-free regime, causing it to jump from fifth position in 2022 to joint first position in 2023. 

Southern African countries also figure among those countries whose score has changed the most since 2016. Angola and Namibia are among the 10 countries that improved the most, Angola from a very low base. Malawi, São Tomé and Principe, South Africa, and Zimbabwe also made significant strides, although only Malawi and Zimbabwe rank among the top half of AVOI performers overall. 

In North Africa, Egypt and Tunisia are among the 20 countries whose score has risen the most since 2016. Both rank among the lower half of performers on the AVOI overall.

The uptake of e-visas 

As for e-visas, progress was slow this year. Indeed, following countries’ initial enthusiasm for developing an e-visa system—both to ease the burden of travel for visitors and to relieve immigration authorities of administrative work—little progress has taken place over the past four years. Today, fewer than half of African countries offer any kind of e-visa, even though doing so would greatly simplify travel for those travellers who are still required to obtain a visa before travelling. 

Developing reliable, accessible, and widespread e-visa systems is an important opportunity for progress and innovation. While it does not advance visa openness, it nevertheless eases the travel experience in situations where a visa is still required ahead of travel.

How conflicts affect visa openness

Conflict between countries or between regions within a country can displace large numbers of people, often suddenly, and often across borders.  Authorities may react by restricting movement and requiring visas, denying entry to some travellers but not others, or closing borders outright—sometimes without notice and always at great cost to people. Political upheaval and undemocratic regime change contribute to the phenomenon. 

Regions experiencing conflict or political instability may perceive the free movement of persons as a security risk and argue that inward travel needs to be controlled more closely. As for countries, conflict tends to absorb their attention and their resources. If the conflict has undermined parliamentary processes and democratic governance structures, countries’ latitude for action shrinks further. 

For these reasons, conflict often alters countries' performance on the AVOI, sometimes significantly.