The History of Passports

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Podcast Transcript

Most people in the world are required to have a passport when they travel internationally. 

Today, there is an international regime covering how passports are to be issued and honored between countries. 

However, in the past, the system was much more informal, and if you go back far enough, there was no system in place at all. 

Learn more about passports, how they work, and how they came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before we get into the origins of passports, there is one overarching fact that you should know.

A long time ago, actually, not even that long ago, people didn’t travel very much.  The average person would never travel beyond about 20 miles from where they were born. 

Perhaps if you were in the military, worked on a ship, or were a merchant, you might get to travel much further, but the average person wouldn’t do that. 

Travel was relatively rare, and if you did find yourself in a foreign land ruled by a foreign king, you would likely arouse suspicion. You’d be a strange person in a strange land, probably speaking a strange language. 

This would be a problem if you were on official business for your king. Someone on official business would need something to present to foreign officials to indicate that they were on a legitimate diplomatic mission.

It is quite probable that ancient civilizations used documents for official travel between them. The effectiveness of these documents was probably due to a lack of general literacy and the use of official royal seals. 

The earliest recorded use of a travel document actually comes from the Hebrew bible. In the Book of Nehemiah chapter 2, verses seven to nine, it says,

“If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.

The reference in this passage is with regards to Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes I of Persia in the 5th century BC, who was given letters of safe passage to Judea.

This would have occurred sometime around the year 450 BC. 

The Arthashastra, an ancient Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, mentions the use of seals in the 3rd century BC, which had to be issued for travel, as well as a minister who assigned the seals. 

The Western Han Dynasty in China, from the second century BC to the first century, issued passports for travel within the empire. These documents included basic information about the person, including height and weight. These passports might have been in use as early as the Qin Dynasty centuries before.

Ancient Rome issued travel documents for travel throughout the empire, and the Islamic Caliphate issued a document known as a bara’a, which was actually just a tax receipt. Only subjects that had proof of paying their taxes were allowed to travel. 

In medieval Europe, the Continent was split up into numerous kingdoms, dutchies, and principalities, some of which were very small. Feudal lords would issue documents for safe-conducts to foreigners as well as for their own subjects to travel through their territories. These documents were primarily intended to protect the bearer from harm and to control movement for security reasons.

One of the things you’ll notice from all these examples is that travel documents were often issued for internal travel, not just travel to another land. This was often used as a means of control by rulers to exert control over their subjects. 

In medieval Europe, travel documents were quite common, but they weren’t yet what we would consider passports, nor was the term passport yet developed. 

The term passport was coined in medieval Italy. It was a document that allowed individuals to enter a harbor or to pass through a city gate. 

The Italian terms are “passa porto,” which means to pass into a port, or “passa porte,” which means to pass through a gate, in reference to the gate of a walled city.  

These documents were issued exclusively to foreign travelers, not to subjects conducting domestic travel.

The Republic of Genoa, which was a trading republic that rivaled Venice, issued documents to their citizens who sailed to other lands. 

In the 15th and 16th centuries, England began issuing passports to its citizens who traveled abroad, and they introduced the term “passport” into the English language. 

Passports changed (and it has become a theme of this podcast) in the 19th century. 

Prior to the 19th century, passports were issued rather ad hoc by every country, and they were usually issued in small numbers. 

One of the biggest things that forced the development of passports was train travel. The popularization of travel by rail dramatically increased the number of people traveling across international borders, especially in Europe, where there were a lot of borders. 

In 1850, this led the states of Germany, of which there were quite a few, to standardize what information would appear in a passport.

However, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, passport rules were actually lessened. The power of train travel overwhelmed the ability of most countries to enforce passports, so most countries simply gave up on requiring passports for entry. 

Passportless travel became the norm in Europe up until the beginning of the First World War. It was also the case with travel inside North America. Canadians and Americans could travel freely between the two countries without any documentation.

The war ushered in restrictions on travel, which were put in place for security reasons but also to ensure that at highly talented people didn’t leave the country.

Passports during the war period were some of the earliest passports containing photos. In fact, even back then, people were complaining about the way their passport photos looked.

After the reintroduction of passports during the war, they didn’t go away when the war was over. 

In fact, in 1920, the League of Nations held a conference in Paris called the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets.

The conference recommended the adoption of a single, uniform passport format. This format was a booklet consisting of a cover and 32 pages, specifying details such as the bearer’s name, age, and photograph, which marked a significant step towards the modern passport.

In addition to passports, which are issued by governments to their citizens, the conference also established guidelines for visa applications and issuance, which are travel documents issued by governments to foreign travelers. 

It wasn’t until 1980 that the subject of passport standardization was revisited. The organization that spearheaded the changes was the International Civil Aviation Organization or ICAO. 

The ICAO developed the first standards for machine-readable passports. If you have ever gone through immigration and customs at an international airport or border crossing, you will have almost certainly had your passport read by a machine. 

In 2007, a chip was added to passports that could be read via RFID or radio-frequency identification. The primary information that is stored on a passport RFID chip is an image of the front page of the passport itself. 

Future passport technology that is being proposed includes biometric scanning data as well as fully electronic passports. These would be passports that would reside on your smartphone. 

Electronic passports already exist in some limited cases. US citizens can enter the United States using an app on their phone, and tests have been conducted between Australia and New Zealand. 

Multiple types of passports exist. Diplomatic passports provide the bearer exemption from searches and other forms of scrutiny that normal passport holders have to suffer through. 

Individual countries can issue different passports as well, oftentimes with just slight variation. 

For example, everyone in the United States, except for diplomats, is issued the same passport. The exception is people from American Samoa. Legally, American Samoans are US Nationals, not US Citizens. Inside their passports, there is a brief disclaimer that says, “The bearer is a United States National, not a United States Citizen.”

Likewise, there are slightly different versions of the British passport that are available to people who live in Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, the Crown Colonies.

Likewise, different passports are issued by China for Hong Kong and Macau. 

Inside every passport is what is known as a request page. This page harkens back to the early days of passports when rulers would issue documents to allow the subjects to travel to foreign lands. 

For example, the request page of every United States passport says the following, “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

In Commonwealth countries, the request is made in the name of the monarch, currently King Charles III. 

This fact actually leads to an interesting result that most people don’t realize. The British Monarch doesn’t have a passport, as a passport is a request for travel on behalf of the monarch.  

Just because you have a passport doesn’t mean you can travel anywhere in the world at any time. Many countries require visitors to be approved and receive a visa before they can enter. 

Having traveled extensively, I can tell you that a visa can be the bane of a world traveler, especially if you are trying to visit less-visited countries.  Getting my visa for Tajikistan was one of the most onerous visa experiences I’ve had to go through. I did a rather complicated visa process for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. By the time I arrived in Tajikistan, my visa had been changed to Visa on arrival.

Some countries have a visa waiver program. This is usually for countries that are more wealthy and have good relations with the visa-issuing country. For example, Canadians and Americans do not need to apply for a visa to each other’s country.

However, the result is there are some countries that are very difficult to enter and some passports that are very difficult to travel with. 

The number of countries you can travel to without having to apply for a visa is considered the strength of a passport. 

As of the recording of this episode, and these things do change frequently, the world’s strongest passports are:

Five countries are tied at number two, each of whom can visit 177 countries. Spain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and France. 

The number one passport comes from the United Arab Emirates and can be used to travel to 179 countries without a visa. 

On the bottom of the list, able to only travel to 39 countries without a visa, is Syria. Afghanistan and Iraq and travel to a whopping 40 and 42 countries respectfully.

Of course, passports have pages to document the visas and passport stamps, which track entry and exit from a country. 

I am currently on my third passport. My second passport had three different sets of extra pages added, which is something you technically aren’t supposed to do. US passports are only supposed to get two sets of extra pages, but I was in a bind as I was to be traveling up the West Coast of Africa by ship, and the embassy in South Africa couldn’t get me a new passport in time, so they just gave me a new set of pages. 

Many people lament the requirement to have a passport when traveling, and I totally understand where they are coming from, but given their very ancient history, passports are here to stay.

If you don’t have a passport, I highly recommend getting one, even if you don’t have any trips planned. It is better to do it when you don’t need it than to get it when there is a deadline. 

Passports in some form or another, be they clay tablets or modern books with RFID chips, have been with us for at least 2,500 years. Today, passports are part of the system that allows for over one billion international trips to take place every year.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Crystilis38 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Keeping My Childhood Dream Alive

When I was younger, it was a personal dream of mine to spend my life traveling the world and learning as much about everything that I could. As time went on and the new adventures of a career, marriage, and parenthood came into my life, this dream seemed less realistic. Then I found this podcast. Through Gary, I’m able to rekindle that dream I once had by learning lots of fantastic new things every day right from the comfort of my day-to-day life. Thank you for all you do, Gary and I look forward to many more years of learning.

PS: If I could, I’d like to suggest three topics for future episodes that have a personal interest to me:

1) The story of the Lizzie Borden axe murders.

2) The USS Thresher tragedy, and how it changed safety protocols in the US Navy.

3) The Citicorp Center and how a college student may have saved thousands of lives.

Thanks, Crystilis! As for your first two requests, you will be happy to note that they are on the list.

The third is what I assume is the architectural problems they found with the building in the late 1970s when it encountered high winds. I saw a Nova special on it years ago, and I will look into it further. If I think it merits a future episode, I’ll add it to the list. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show