A passport is like a magic carpet. With one, flying to foreign lands is simply a matter of wishing it (and paying for it). Without one, you're earthbound. But as powerful as a passport is, some are more powerful than others. 

For the lucky citizens of certain countries, a passport is all it takes to gain access to most nations on the planet. For others, the document is practically useless without a pre-approved visa fastened to one of its pages.   

People who can enter a country without such a visa are sometimes said to be traveling "visa-free." Technically, this is not true. When the unsmiling immigration officer gives you a stare and then slams a stamp onto one of your passport's pages, you're getting a "visa on arrival." But it beats the often lengthy and complicated process of applying for a visa at a country's consular office or embassy.

You're probably wondering where your passport ranks. A recent survey from Good Magazine counted the number of countries that different passport holders could enter without a pre-approved visa. For the three most powerful passports in the world, the total is an impressive 173.

Stacks of brand new Finnish passports

Stacks of brand new Finnish passports photographed in August 2014. (Photo: thornet_/Flickr)

Who issues those mighty documents? If you're thinking an economic powerhouse like the United States, you're wrong. Passports from the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan aren't among the golden trio. The fortunate few are citizens of the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden.

Many countries are just behind them, however. Passports from the United States, Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg allow holders easy entry to 172 countries. A number of other countries' passports fall in the 170-150 range.

Afghanistan issues the weakest passport on Earth. Afghans can visit just 28 countries without first acquiring a visa. Passports from Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan rank just barely ahead.

A busy airport terminal

Photo: Artens/Shutterstock

If you hold a diplomatic passport, the world is your oyster. Issued to government representatives and diplomats who travel on official state business, these passports often allow holders to avoid standard immigration and customs checkpoints altogether.

Over the past decade, U.S. citizens have been required to use a passport for any travel beyond the 50 states and territories. But not everyone needs one to cross national borders. People whose home countries issue an EU-compliant ID card can skip around the European Union without one.  

Some other ID cards can replace a passport. An APEC Business Travel Card grants entry to any of the 20 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation) member states. The NEXUS card, intended for low-risk citizens who travel frequently between the United States and Canada, can scoot you across that line.

When even a strong passport can't get you into the country of your choice, getting a pre-approved visa is not always a hassle. In the United States, a good travel agent can usually take care of it.

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