Every country in the world has a border, a political (and sometimes physical) dividing line that marks where one country ends and another country or territory begins. Borders are categorized based upon the guidelines for crossing them. The least restricted type of border policy is an open border, over which people are free to come and go as they please. Whether an individual is a citizen of the host country, an international visitor, a businessperson coming with goods from another country, or an immigrant seeking to relocate permanently, they need not carry specific documents, prove their identity, or explain their purpose in the country.
Open borders in the modern world
As of 2022, none of the countries in the world officially have open borders. While a few countries have open border agreements with a select few other countries (Europe's Schengen nations being the most prominent example), the majority of nations opt instead for border policies that place at least a few additional limitations on individuals' ability to enter or exit the country. These restrictions are typically intended to safeguard national security or preserve business ecosystems.
That said, in some countries official policy may differ from actual practice. Modern countries may have unintentionally open borders. These countries either have no laws at all regarding their border policy or have a more restrictive border policy that goes unenforced because the government lacks the funding to finance proper border controls.
While open borders are currently extinct at the international level, multiple countries have had open borders at times throughout history. The early United States, for instance, owed the majority of its population to unfettered immigration enabled by an open border policy and easy citizenship process. Today, however, the situation has changed. U.S. immigration is tightly controlled and the country has gone from being one of the easiest countries to immigrate to to one of most challenging countries to immigrate to thanks to more restrictive policies.
Open borders between states, provinces, and other sub-national divisions
On a sub-national level, open borders between a country's internal divisions, such as states or provinces, are common. For example, the individual states of the United States have open borders, enabling people to freely travel from one state to another at any time and for any reason (though they may still be restricted from carrying certain agricultural products that could spead disease).
Types of International Border Policy
In countries with an open border, citizens and non-citizens may cross the border at will without showing a passport or other proof of ID or citizenship. However, it is important to note that while open borders would make visiting or establishing residency in a new country virtually effortless, they would also introduce significant economic concerns and security risks. As such, no country in the world has a deliberately open border policy.
Conditionally Open Border
Native citizens may cross the border at will with proof of ID in countries with a conditionally open border, but others may enter the country only under specific circumstances (for example, refugees seeking asylum from dangerous persecution).
The most common border policy in the modern world is the controlled border. Native citizens may cross the border at will with proof of ID, but others must obtain a visa to visit and may not overstay their allotted time. Borders may be guarded or fenced, with legal entry restricted to designated entry points. Both controlled and closed borders may be protected by border walls.
Quota Controlled Border
A common variation of conditionally open and controlled borders, a quota controlled border is one in which individuals who meet certain criteria may be allowed to enter, but only in limited numbers. For example, one method of entering the United States is through a "diversity lottery" that selectively awards residency to immigrants from certqin countries—however, the program is limited to 50,000 new residents each year.
The most restrictive border policy is a closed border, in which borders are closed to both entry and exit in nearly every circumstance. Closed borders are quite rare in the modern world, and are most likely to occur in countries where personal freedoms are challenged, such as dictatorships. Examples of closed borders include the Berlin wall, which formerly separated East and West Germany, and the current demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Europe's Schengen countries: Selectively open borders on a continental scale
While no current countries have borders that are truly open to all, Europe's 26 Schengen countries come quite close in many respects—and because the Schengen agreement covers nearly all of Europe (with only a few non-Schengen countries) it includes a significant portion of the Earth's population. In an arrangement similar to a visa-free agreement, Schengen countries have open borders with one another, but not with non-Schengen countries. For example, Belgium has an open border with fellow Schengen countries Germany (along its Eastern border) and Spain (with which it does not share a border), but not with Russia, which is a non-Schengen country.
* Countries marked with * have not signed the Schengen Agreement, but have open borders with Schengen countries.
The pros and cons of open borders
The concept of open borders is a heavily debated issue in political circles. To some, the question of open borders is primarily an economic concern. To others, open borders are a social issue or even a moral obligation. Both the pro and con side of the open borders argument can offer a plethora of positive and negative potential impacts.
Many positions held by one side of the open borders debate directly contradict the position of the other side. For example, opponents of open borders claim the policy can cause a "brain drain" in which skilled workers leave poorer countries and immigrate to wealthier nations. Supporters of open borders counter that this fear is unproven and posit that the opposite phenomenon would occur, with skilled workers more likely to travel to wherever the need is greatest.
Pros of open borders (arguments in favor of open borders)
Note: As with the anti-open argument, pro-open points listed below may be disputed theories rather than accepted scientifically or statistically proven facts.
- Open borders could increase the collective Global World Product (GWP) by 67%-147% according to some estimates.
- Open borders can help reduce poverty, freeing workers to move to countries that have more or higher-paying jobs.
- Open borders, according to some studies, benefit the host country as well as the home countries of the migrants or immigrants it accepts. Positive impacts include boosting overall GDP of the host country and increasing funding for social programs such as Social Security and Medicare while creating a proportionally smaller drain on them.
- Open borders can encourage international trade (particularly by removing tariffs).
- Open borders can increase opportunities for international investment by removing barriers to travel and business.
- Open borders improve the experience of legal travellers by eliminating delays and complications caused by checkpoints, visa paperwork, and other safeguards meant to prevent illegal passage.
- Open borders may help poorer countries develop by enabling their citizens to easily travel internationally to obtain an education or higher-paying job and either send money home or move back home and use their acquired knowledge and wealth to benefit their home country.
- Open borders satisfy Article 13 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all people have the inherent the right to enter, exit, move around in, and live in any country they choose.
- Open borders remove outdated and unfair social inequalities that restrict a person's social mobility and career opportunities based not upon their abilities or merits, but by the country in which they happened to be born.
- Open borders avoid many of the humanitarian and logistical crises that arise from closed borders, such as the deaths of would-be migrants forced into desperate, often illegal methods to cross borders such as the US-Mexico border, the US-Haiti border, or the Mediterranean Sea.
- Open borders could save the lives of many immigrants currently trapped in a dangerous situation in their home country as they wait to be granted entry into a safer nation.
- Open borders are easy to justify morally (because of their equality and fairness). In comparison, many experts maintain that restricted borders are only morally justifiable when it is preventing significant harm, which they have not been proven to do.
- Open borders are arguably more ethical according to experts like bioethicist Jacob M. Appel, who maintains that it is inherently unethical to treat people differently simply because they were born in one country or another.
Cons of open borders (arguments in favor of closed or controlled borders)
Note: As with the pro-open argument, anti-open points listed below may be disputed theories rather than accepted scientifically or statistically proven facts.
- Open borders enable poorer countries with higher birth rates to offload their overflow population to more affluent countries with lower birth rates.
- Open borders could cause an influx of low-skilled immigrants, who would compete with natives for jobs. This could decrease both wages and the average conditions for workers in general, including high-skilled workers.
- Open borders can create a "brain drain" in which too many of the skilled workers in a less advantaged country immigrate to a better situation in a weaalthier country. For example, a 2010 article claimed that "There are more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago today than in all of Ethiopia."
- Open borders create enmity and resentment between natives and immigrants, which can lead to the natives passing laws to create disadavantages for or even criminalize immigrants. Studies in the United States indicated that the more Democrats supported immigration, the more whites voted for conservative Republicans with restrictive immigration policies.
- Open borders make illegal smuggling easier and thereby more prevalent.
- Open borders could conceivably overburden the public services and living capacity of certain localized areas, such as the towns along a country's border.
- Open borders could dilute the values and cultural identity of the host country by allowing in too many people from other countries and cultures. This is the basis for the Great Replacement theory.
- Open borders may be logistically impossible because even the wealthiest countries would lack the capacity to absorb and support the flood of poverty-stricken immigrants that could result from a truly open border policy. U.S. senator Bernie Sanders, a noted progressive, has stated that he does not support open borders for this reason.
- Open borders may only truly work within a single worldwide government, according to some experts.