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A Traveler’s Perspective: The History and Evolution of The Passport

The passport is a document familiar to every traveler, and it would be an understatement to say that throughout the years I’ve become quite attached to mine. It would also be safe to say, that this little book is one of the most important possessions in my life.

For without it, I wouldn’t be able to pursue my dream of seeing the world and everything in it. Although, I’d much rather live in the society fantasied by the late, grate John Lennon. Where as an individual I was allowed to freely roam where ever I please, and a passport was not required.

Sorry John, I can Imagine that ‘there are no countries’, but I won’t be holding my breath on that thought. The world’s just to damned complex.

The History of The Passport

Anyway, I’ve carried this precious and familiar document with me for all my travelling life, but I’ve never really given much of a thought to it’s origin. Where did the passport come from, how did it evolve, and where is it heading from here?

History and Early Origins of The Passport

A passport is essentially a document issued by a national government to certify the identity of the holder for the purpose of international travel, but how long have these documents been issued to the weary traveler?

It seems that the true origin of the modern passport can not really be defined. Although there are many theories and plenty of cultures putting their hands up to say it was their invention. After doing a little research I simply feel that the passport is the cumulative evolution of a vast many societies and cultures. The document has slowly evolved over time, resulting from a mashup of many of it’s predecessors, and ending in it’s current configuration.

One of the earliest references to the passport was been made in the medieval era, and attributed to the time of the Persian Empire around 450BC.

It is said that Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes of Persia, asked to leave the Kingdom and travel to Judea. On this request the King granted him a letter requesting safe passage, as he traveled through the lands beyond the Euphrates.

The Passport Enters The Middle Ages

In the medieval Islamic world, a formal document would also be issued to those citizens whom were loyal citizens and had paid their taxes. This document would then entitle the holder to travel throughout different regions of the caliphate.

Throughout the middle ages, it seems that identity documents were not required by the sea faring traveler’s upon reaching a foreign port. Although as soon as anyone set foot outside the port, a formal document of some sort (i.e. passport) was required.

King Henry the 5th

King Henry the 5th has been given credit to the creation of the modern passport.

Other research points to King Henry the Fifth of England, who seems to have been credited to giving the world what some consider to be the first true passport.

This document is now the earliest surviving reference to what we all consider to be a passport, and used in the same context as it is in the modern world.

After a sitting of the parliament, it was made law that these documents could be issued to anyone, no matter who he or she was (foreign nationals would even be issued theirs free of charge).

Of course the Monarch himself did not require such a document, and I believe this law still stands to this day (but I stand to be corrected, if anyone knows).

The earliest use of the term, ‘Passport’ dates back to the regine of King Louis XIV of France , but their is no certainty to it’s exact meaning.

Many have subscribed to the idea (myself included), that the term is derived from two French words and relates to the passing through city gates or walls (or possibly sea fearing ports). 

The Standardization of The Passport

Although in use, the passport was not commonly required in Continental Europe leading into World War 1. In fact the document was being used less and less during this period. People were free to cross borders in most of continental Europe without the use of a passport.

It was the beginning of the ‘Great War’ the symbolized the requirement of an identity document across the worlds borders and shores. This steered the passport on a course towards it’s current use.

The advent of photography saw the use of photographs in passports in the early decades of the twentieth century. Before the days of photograph’s in ones passport, a complete list of facial features was included in the document. Describing the shape of face, complexion, color of eyes, size of nose, color of hair and so on.

Could you imagine this going on in today’s politically correct world?

Following the Great War, the ‘League of Nations’ held a series of conferences in the 1920’s that would lay down further guidelines for the roll-out of passports to all global citizens wanting to travel internationally.

Throughout the middle to late 20th century there was still no formal and absolute guidelines on the control of the document. Until the year of 1980, where the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority) took control of the document. This agency (a specialized branch stemming from the United Nations) has outlaid the requirements and specifications for the standardization of the document until this day.

The Evolution of The Modern Passport

In the modern era, we have seen the passport continue it’s evolution in fits and spurts over the last 100 years. It’s morphing from a simple mainly hand written booklet into the modern and complex design of the e-Passport.

Australian ePassport

The modern passport looks no much different that it did 20 or 30 years ago. That little symbol at the bottom indicates the main difference.

It appears the world we currently live in has seen governments around the world push the security of this little document even further, and the roll-out of the e-Passport standard throughout the world is beginning to reach far and wide.

Watch out though as big brother is watching, and there are plans to embed a monumental amount of data into the microchip in the e-Passport. The limited information currently embedded into the chip is just the beginning.

The complexity of this document will continue to evolve. After the events of September the 11th 2001, world governments will slowly push the boundaries of what many consider to be civil liberties of an individual.

We’ve moved from seals and signatures to holograms and microchips. As the technology surrounding the passport continues to grow.

Who knows, that day may come where we all have that dreaded microchip implanted in our bodies, that has been predicted in science fiction for many years!

Your Thoughts and Comments?

Do you have anything further to add to my research on this topic? Where do you think we are headed with the modern passport?  What about the pushing of boundaries in relation to civil rights, all in the name of security?

A Little More About The Author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  1. I am reading a book about Wisenthal, and his hunt for Nazi war criminals. I wondered about all the people that were put in concentration camps during the war, and how they were able to travel from one country to another , looking for a new home, or for family members from whom they were separated for several years. I;m sure that when they were taken from their homes, they were not permitted to take things like a passport, or a birth certificate with them. Were the borders open for them to cross without proper identification? Also the ones who went to Israel, the US, Canada, or south America. How was it possible for them to travel without some official document of identification.

  2. Tom says:

    If you like to learn more about the passport and it’s history please visit my website.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Tom, All I can say is wow. I did a little reading and research, to post something interesting on the passport and it’s history, but your site is like a public library on the topic.

      Thanks for the input and if anyone wants some really in depth reading on the topic, then head on over.

  3. Marina C. says:

    Wow! this post is so interesting! I love my Passport too, even though now with the EU, I don’t use it as often as lately most of my travels are within EU countries. Still even though it would make life much easier for us not to need one, I still love it when I get a new stamp on mine, and then I enjoy looking through my collection!

    • Jason says:

      Hey Marina, I do remember the days when many visa’s were needed to travel throughout Europe. Mostly in Eastern Europe, but I still remember having to get a visa for France in the early nineties. As I pointed out above, I would much rather live in a world where there were no boundaries or magic lines on a map, but I’m afraid that’s just a pipe dream.

      I also love to flick through old passports of mine and remember the various journeys I’ve taken through out the years. As the years pass, they also help me with dates on when I visited certain regions of the world. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Great article Jason! As travelers we are very fond of our passports, I was devastated when mine was stolen six months ago in Peru. I was so helpless without the passport, I couldn’t travel! I do really hope we don’t reach the microchip phase, that would just be scary!

    • Jason says:

      Hey Jarmo, Losing your passport probably just shoes the control that governments have on us and without that little book, you become isolated and stuck in any one destination. It’s kinda sad really, but as I mentioned in the post, the world is a complex place. Lets hope that dreaded microchip doesn’t ever make it’s way into reality, but like most things in science fiction. They end up coming true.

      Even if it doesn’t the amount of data that can be stored in to microchip in the new e-Passport is going to increase quite rapidly over time.

  5. Wow this was such an interesting post! I’d love to hear how they’d physically describe me if cameras had not been invented yet.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Andi, Glad you enjoyed the post. I thought the written descriptions of peoples facial features was quite a laugh, and could just imagine them doing it in today’s politically correct world. An impossible task no doubt.

  6. It goes to show you, that the passport is not for people, it is for government to control people.
    This is why it always amazes me when people talk about having more government in their lives – they want to be instructed by authorities telling them what they can and cannot do.
    Completely idiotic.
    Governments will state that a passport is for security, playing on the fear of people. It is a crock – it allows governments to control who comes in AND who IS ALLOWED to leave.
    Another example of why big government is bad.
    (By the way, have you seen the new proposal for questions on the USA passport application? Look at the questions here – http://thebigmozey.com/an-open-letter-to-the-us-government-and-department-of-state-passports/)
    Also, going into effect in 2012 are currency controls on US citizens.
    Welcome Big Brother!
    John D. Wilson

    • Jason says:

      Hey John, The further government control is not just an issue in the USA, but an issue to most countries including mine. I did have a quick look through the new US proposal application document, and some of the questions there asking are quite intrusive. The problem is that they just keep on playing the terrorism card and everyone has to bow down to it. Fear mongering is the biggest issue, and they would like nothing more than you to not leave the country, ever!

    • “Tis truly a shame, as the “terror” is actually coming from our own governments. <akes me real uneasy that the USA has hit men throughout the world to get the "bad" guys. Questions is, who is protecting us from them!

  7. Excellent piece here Jason. Plays well in Orwell’s vision of the future.

    From the past I always think of the WW2 passports Jews so desperately tried to obtain. A valuable passport back then, meant life to many.

    I agree that those micro chips will be horrific. They’ll monitor everywhere we go. With all the NFC stuff, we won’t even be aware of it.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Dave, Thanks for that mate. It was an interesting topic to me and the information in the post is just a taste and really only scratched the surface. The implanted microchip may or may not happen, but one things for sure. There will be a continued growth in the amount of information stored in the microchip in the new e-Passports, that’s for sure. As a person who loves technology, I think it can be used in the wrong way.

      It frightens me what they will be able to do in the future with the kind of technology that’s basically available now. I suppose it’s up to everyone as a collective to just say NO.

  8. Dean says:

    Interesting topic Jason. I hadn’t really thought about the origin of the passport before and I certainly didn’t know that it dated back so far in history.
    I dread the day that they start trying to implant microchips into us. I like having a passport that I can see and touch, it’s a great feeling getting that stamp when you enter a new country.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Dean, Like most things in life we tend to take them a little for granted and don’t put allot of thought into the history behind them. I’m with you mate, and do enjoy flipping through old passports of mine and looking at the many Visa’s and entry stamps I’ve been issued over the years.

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