As the Commonwealth Games kick off on the Gold Coast, it's a good time to ask – what does being a member of the Commonwealth of Nations actually mean for Australians, particularly Australian travellers looking to visit our fellow Commonwealth countries?
Apart from cricket, tea, scones, an obligation to eat turkey at Christmas, a political system bequeathed by the British parliament and a dogged allegiance to a hereditary monarch, what benefits does our membership of the Commonwealth of Nations bestow? Does it ease our travels, give us freedom of movement when we visit our brethren in the 52 other Commonwealth countries? Lay out the red carpet when we cross the portals of Saint Lucia or Tuvalu?
Well not really. Whether or not you need a visa to enter a particular country, whether it's a Commonwealth nation or not, and how much that visa costs, has nothing to do with the fact that Australia is a member of the Commonwealth. An Australian passport gets you visa-free entry to some Commonwealth countries such as Belize and Jamaica, but so will a passport from the USA or China. You can get a visa on arrival should you care to visit Rwanda, but so can a citizen of Israel, or Sweden. An e-visa for India costs about the same whether your passport identifies you as Swiss, Nigerian, Albanian or Australian
Even Britain, the mother country, regards some of her Commonwealth citizens with a wary eye. Australians can stay in Britain for up to six months without a visa, but so can citizens of a number of non-Commonwealth nations such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and the USA. On the other hand, those with passports issued by several Commonwealth nations including India, South Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda, must apply for a visa to enter Britain.
Under the Youth Mobility Scheme Visa, some nationalities aged 18 to 30 have the right to apply to live and work in Britain for up to two years. Australians are one of the eight nationalities eligible for the scheme – but so are citizens of non-Commonwealth countries including Japan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong and Monaco.
In other Commonwealth countries, for the most part an Australian passport carries about the same rights of entry as a German or a Japanese passport. For example citizens of most Commonwealth countries are allowed visa-free entry to Botswana, formerly the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, but the same privilege also extends to citizens of Spain, Iceland, Cuba and Bulgaria.
Nor do citizens of all Commonwealth nations get treated as a bloc with respect to visas when they seek to enter a non-Commonwealth country. Australians entering Chile don't require a visa, but they pay a reciprocity fee of $US117. By contrast, British passport holders pay nothing. Australians also pay $216 for a Visit Visa to enter Brazil while citizens of several other Commonwealth nations including New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, Fiji and Britain get in for nix.
It's not all bad news however. As a citizen of the Commonwealth, you can stand for election to the British House of Commons. If you're a bishop, you can sit in the House of Lords. But best of all is the gift of the English language. We might not all play badminton, but a common language is one gift that the British Empire wove into the fabric of its Commonwealth.
It might not all go smoothly in the Himba kraals of northern Namibia or a muddy village in the delta of the Ganges but by and large, English will get you through in most of the Commonwealth countries. Thanks to the English language, I can order breakfast in Lahore without knowing a word of Urdu, converse with a taxi driver in Penang, and when a Tanzanian safari guide tells me not to leave my room at night because there are lions about, I am profoundly grateful that we share a common language.