Through much of human history, passports were special documents that were issued by important people to allow merchants and diplomats to move about. Over time, the issuing of passports became a government tool for limiting the ability of citizens to leave their own countries. As pleasure travel increased during the nineteenth century, passports were devised to allow masses of people to move more easily among countries.

Derived from the French words passer, meaning “to pass,” and port, for “port,” passports are documents that date back to at least 1500 b.c.e., when ancient Egyptian commoners were required to register themselves with the government. By the time of the Middle Ages, European countries were issuing passports to their citizens to permit them to travel within the countries. At night, gated towns would typically only allow entry to travelers carrying documents attesting to their peaceful intentions. These documents also protected the travelers themselves from harm by conveying discreet threats of reprisals should anything happen to their bearers. Passports of that era were handwritten documents issued by powerful members of the nobility whose names carried weight. After that time, passports continued to be uncommon and privately issued documents until the nineteenth century.PassportsPassports[cat]BORDERS;Passports[04100][cat]CITIZENSHIP AND NATURALIZATION;Passports[04100][cat]LAW

Passports in the United States

The first U.S. passports were issued to American travelers in Paris and London during the 1780’s. Those one-page documents provided descriptions of their holders and stated the duration of the documents’ validity, which was usually three or six months. American travelers could also obtain passports for foreign travel from the cities and states in which they were residents. Foreigners planning to visit the United States during the nineteenth century had various ways of obtaining passports. Some governments refused to allow male citizens of military age and those with valuable skills to leave their countries. However, almost any person could walk into a French or Belgian consulate and obtain a passport for travel, as French or Belgian citizenship was not required. This system ended in 1858 when an Italian who fraudulently obtained a French passport by claiming to be British attempted to assassinate the emperor of France. After that date, no nation would issue a passport identifying its holder as a national of another country. This change began the gradual process of formalizing the issuing of passports.

Meanwhile, until 1856, many U.S. cities continued to issue passports to their own citizens who wished to travel abroad. By this time, the U.S. Department of State had become concerned about this practice. Because of the slackness with which passports were being issued, European nations often refused to recognize them unless they were endorsed by local consular officials. In 1856, the U.S. Congress gave the Department of State sole authority to issue passports. Government officials who issued American passports to noncitizens could be fined or fired.

Around that same time, Asian governments had little interest in encouraging their citizens to travel overseas. In systems designed to control commoners for the economic benefit of the ruling class, both China;passports ofChina and Japan;passports ofJapan required would-be travelers to obtain permission from their local lords to move. During the late nineteenth century, as China and Japan began issuing passports, they required travelers to enter their intended plans on the documents.

The British government took a casual attitude toward passports during the nineteenth century. Whereas the passports of most countries required descriptions of their bearers, British passports bore no descriptions at all until the early twentieth century, when they began listing their bearers’ ages and occupations. The British attitude was that British subjects should be able to freely travel everywhere. The attitude of the U.S. government toward passports through the nineteenth century was similar. One State Department official even publicly declared that the U.S. government did not impose any law or regulation upon those entering its territory.

National Security Concerns

The onset of World War I[World War 01];and passport[passport]sWorld War I in 1917 forced nations to pay closer attention to who was crossing their borders. After Great Britain executed a German spy who had used a British passport while engaged in wartime espionage in 1914, U.S. secretary of state Bryan, William JenningsWilliam Jennings Bryan ordered that all American passports bear Photography;and passport[passport]photographs of their bearers. Officials suggested that travelers pose for their passport photographs in regular street clothes, instead of the formal wear often worn while posing for studio photographers, and that hats should not be worn unless they were part of daily religious attire.

In 1918, Congress passed legislation requiring that Americans traveling abroad carry passports and that foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States obtain visas.Visas;origins of In 1926, the federal government established a standard design for passports: a stiff, dark red cover enclosing a booklet. That design became the worldwide standard. Color photographs were first used in passports in 1958.

As the reality of war had forced the United States to require passports, the reality of Terrorism;and passports[passports]terrorism forced the country to pay more attention to worldwide passport security. After the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, the federal government’s 9/11 Commission identified flaws in U.S. immigration law that had allowed terrorists to enter the United States. In response, the National Counterterrorism Center developed a strategy to make it harder for terrorists to enter, exit, and travel within the United States. A major part of this strategy has been a tightening of procedures used for issuing and inspecting passports.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security has implemented the post-9/11 strategy by analyzing the methods of travel used by terrorists, assisting foreign countries in maintaining passport security, and inspecting passport applications. In 2006, the bureau broke up a ring of vendors that had provided fraudulent Indonesian passports to the terrorist group called Jamal IslamyiaJamal Islamyia. Those passports could have been used to enter the United States.Passports

Further Reading

  • Bauman, Robert E. The Complete Guide to Offshore Residency, Dual Citizenship and Second Passports. New York: Sovereign Society, 2000. Discussion of procedures for obtaining dual citizenship and second passports, written by a former U.S. congressman.
  • Caplan, Jane, and John Torpey, eds. Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Collection of scholarly essays on issues relating to government-created identification documents, including passports.
  • Lloyd, Martin. The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document. Phoenix Mill, England: Sutton, 2003. Comprehensive history of the evolution of government-issued travel documents.
  • Torpey, John. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Study of how passports have been used by governments to monitor the travels and activities of both aliens and their own citizens.
  • U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 2006. Government pamphlet outlining the federal government’s strategy for tightening passport security.


Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.

Green cards

9/11 and U.S. immigration policy

Transit aliens