BEIRUT — For many Lebanese, the allure of travel has always been tempered by the challenges posed by visa applications and the limitations of holding a low-ranked passport.
When the financial crisis hit the country in 2019, and its banks started imposing unauthorized and arbitrary capital controls, and restrictions on opening new bank accounts, thousands of Lebanese longing to leave the country were left without a crucial document — a bank statement proving the applicant had sufficient funds for their trip.
L’Orient Today spoke to Hasan J., a Lebanese citizen with no bank account who wants to visit Canada and hopes to one day emigrate to that country. Securing a bank statement to prove his funds, a seemingly mundane step in any visa application, has been a cumbersome ordeal.
Hasan has exhausted all his options to prove to the Canadian visa center that he has enough money to cover his trip.
Using World Bank data, Trading Economics, a global economic data platform, has estimated that between 2010 and 2022 bank accounts in Lebanon have consistently decreased by 40 percent to less than 500 accounts per 1,000 inhabitants.
‘Nothing is working’
Hasan worked for the Lebanese Red Cross’ logistics room, leaving after a personal dispute with management.
“Ever since I left my job, I’ve been considering immigrating and have been checking out several countries as options, one of which is Canada,”, told L’Orient Today.
He has been applying for a Canadian tourist visa at a travel agency.
Hasan’s bank closed his account around three years ago after he withdrew all his savings. He said that the travel agency’s lawyer advised him to present a bank statement showing consistent transactions over time, with a balance not less than $10,000, to demonstrate his ability to sustain himself during his stay in Canada.
“The Canadian [multiple entry] visa usually matches the number of years till a passport expires so they need to make sure one can sustain himself for this period,” Hasan said.
According to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website, a Canadian multiple entry visitor visa, also called a temporary resident visa, “will be valid for up to ten years or one month before your passport expires, whichever is shorter” and “will let you travel to Canada for six months at a time as many times as you want.”
Desperate to fulfill visa requirements, Hasan considered opening a “fresh” foreign currency account with the intention of depositing $10,000.
Several banks informed him that he would be limited to withdrawing only $1,000 per month, however, making access to his savings impractical in case of emergencies or during his travels.
“Let’s say I get into a car crash and I need money for hospitalization, they wouldn’t give me the money,” Hasan said.
“Also, if everything goes right and I do get the visa and travel to Canada, how will I have access to my money? I would need at least a couple thousand dollars in my pocket for expenses if I spend a month there,” he added. “So I am proving to the visa center that I have $10,000 in my account but actually I don’t have access to it!”
“Nothing is working,” he lamented.
Asked whether he trusted the banks enough to deposit $10,000 there, Hasan said, “Of course not. But I considered it because we have no other option as Lebanese people.
It proved challenging to find other avenues to verify his finances.
Like many Lebanese today, he works a second job (in this case with a cousin’s construction company) which pays him cash. The travel agency’s lawyer suggested that Hasan present his salary receipts — an exceptional service the company offers as proof of services rendered — as supporting documents.
“So I went ahead and translated the receipts, scanned them and sent them to her.” The receipts were eventually submitted with his file.
To further shore up his file, Hasan sought to obtain a sponsorship document from the bank where his uncle had kept a pre-2019 account.
“But upon requesting it from the bank, the bank told him they are no longer granting anyone this document,” Hasan said, speculating that this so that banks can avoid having dual citizen depositors suing them through the judicial systems of the second territory.
Meanwhile, it is said some Lebanese travelers have resorted to illegal means, such as using counterfeit bank statements, to obtain visas.
Hasan contemplated buying such a fake bank statement, saying the fee was around $400.
He said that people can find brokers by word of mouth, adding that they even offer proof of work documents. “The guy I talked with said he would put down whatever number I wanted on the bank statement, be it a million dollars, with proof of money moving in and out.”
“One of my friends bought it and faced no problems using it when he traveled,” Hasan said. “But, someone else I know was caught. [The embassy] cross-checked his document with the bank listed on it and the bank told them the statement was forged.”
Hasan decided against this risky path, recognizing the potential consequences of being caught and blacklisted from traveling to Canada.
“I’m making sure I do everything legally. I want everything to be right,” he said.
“But when you go legally, everything is harder.”
Hasan’s Canadian visa application was rejected the first time. Driven by hope and desperation, he applied again around a month ago and has been waiting on the results.
This conundrum extends beyond those traveling for tourism and/or in hopes of migration.
Lebanese students wishing to study abroad are faced with similar hurdles, as universities often require a bank statement as evidence of sufficient funds — a challenge stifling the hopes of Ahmad Itani, 27.
Like countless others, when the Lebanese lira's value started to plummet Itani withdrew his savings, closed his bank account, seeing no viable reason, nor opportunity, to reopen an account amid the persistent collapse.
Itani has been determined to pursue a master's degree abroad. He found a glimmer of hope at a university in Rome. “The registrar happened to be Lebanese," Itani said. "She explained that they have been accommodating the situation of potential Lebanese students and occasionally accepting payments through Western Union.”
Financing the visa and travel, though, remains arduous and convoluted for Lebanese.
“I think more about where I can put the money to prove that I have it than I worry about having the actual money now,” Itani said.
Itani remains determined to pursue his graduate degree in sports rehabilitation but he first plans to move to the Gulf, where he hopes to secure a steady income and deposit funds in an overseas (in this case Emirati) bank account.
“Definitely not a Lebanese bank,” Itani giggled.
Itani says even if things turn around in Lebanon, he doesn't see himself ever trusting Lebanon’s banking system enough to reopen a bank account here.
Without a bank account, Itani’s travel options are restricted.
"When I traveled in 2021,” he recalled, “I had to carry all my money in cash."
He chose Turkey and the Maldives as destinations due to their eased visa policies for Lebanese passport holders, granting visas either online or on arrival.
Itani said he would’ve preferred to visit Cyprus or Greece, but the financial requirements to apply for a visa have remained insurmountable without a proper bank account.
“Honestly,” he adds, “with or without a bank account, it’s become harder to set aside money for travel.”
'I'd have to consider a million factors'
Nour Kawwas, 27, was living and working as an arts teacher in Saudi Arabia in 2020 without a bank account. She had to request that her paycheck be deposited into a relative's account.
This arrangement worked until she had to relocate to Lebanon in 2021 after a family tragedy.
Kawwas had overstayed her Saudi labor visa and was required to pay a fine at the airport before departing.
The fine could only be paid through a bank card, not in cash.
"So, a person could easily just get stuck in a country,” Kawwas said. “Fortunately, there was a family at the airport also paying a fine. I asked if they could cover my fine with their card, and I pay them in cash. So I was able to make it back to Lebanon."
She, her sister and Saudi partners later started a business in Lebanon — exporting art supplies from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia — which involved frequent travel, making a bank account necessary.
Their solution was to use their father's account, which he had opened before the crisis had fully taken hold. What seemed a simple solution soon became a financial quagmire.
The bank told them that they needed to convert the account into a “fresh dollar” account to make cash deposits, which they promptly did. They were then taken aback to learn that the bank imposed an exorbitant 10 percent fee on all transfers they received. For every $2000 deposit they received almost every week, the bank pocketed $200, Kawwas said in frustration.
In her search for alternatives, she learned about the OMT Visa card, a prepaid and reloadable dual currency card issued by BLOM Bank. This card offered some relief, as it allowed her to make payments while abroad, at stores or online.
It was not a perfect solution. Not all businesses accept the card, which carries higher fees than conventional banking transactions, and embassies don’t accept the card’s statements as proof of the applicant’s finances.
A larger issue remained — how to travel freely to countries that require visas from Lebanese citizens.
"To travel without a bank account with a substantial amount of money is a complex process,” Kawwas said. “I'd have to consider a million factors."
As far as foreign travel goes, Kawwas shares the sentiments of many Lebanese youth these days.
"Who among us is able to have a bank account today holding a sum of money large enough to apply for a visa? There has also been a loss of trust between the citizens and the banks. No one is willing to deposit their cash at the bank, even if it were an option to do so."