The Evolution of the Passports

by Kaan ERTAN

One thing that COVID’19 pandemic definitely reminded us of, is how valuable our right of movement is. No matter if we travel for work-related purposes or for recreational purposes, it is a luxury and inseparable part of the 21st century. But how did people use to travel internationally in the past? Surely, they had their means of transportation, but what about passports? In this article, we will look closer to the past and evolution of the passports over time.

Before the passports, various types of travel documents had been used. These documents were used mostly either by merchants or diplomatic envoys. They were very simpler compared to our passports today, usually being a letter from the monarch confirming the identity of a passenger and requesting safe passage to their destination. The first reference ever to such a document is found in the Bible, where Persian king Artaxerxes grants safe passage to Nehemiah to return to Judah. This event took place in 445 B.C.

Before globalization and the formation of modern society, travel was not a part of ordinary life. It was an obligation for certain people -emissaries, merchants, and missionaries- rather than a luxury or freedom for everyone. Therefore, travel documents that were issued for specific purposes were enough for people to travel safely. Unlike our passports today, these documents given by the country of origin could easily be forged. Therefore, travelers would usually need to get a certificate of circulation or merchandise from their country of arrival, too, just like the visas today.

Even though travel documents and circulation certificates were an adequate regulation for its time, they still could be easily forged or overlooked. The arrival of passports was inevitable. The French word “passeport” dates back to 1420, when it first appeared in Lyon as a certificate issued by the authorities for the free circulation of merchandise. In 1464, the concept was extended to people and the “passeport” became a document for a safe conduct, guaranteeing the general free circulation of any person. This was when passeport became close to the passport we use today. The first appearance of the word “passport” in English, however, dates back to the early 16th century.

Both in France and in Britain, passports were quite similar to travel documents. The main difference was that passports could be granted by the customs authorities in France and by the Privy Council in Britain. This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it was an important necessity and a step forward. It is a step forward because it shows that the demand for passports was growing and they were slowly becoming an accessible document for everyone. In the following decades, other countries followed the French-British lead by issuing their own passports, standardizing international travel documents.

With the rapid industrialization of the mid-19th century, the railway infrastructure expanded, and the European public wealth grew vastly. These led to an unprecedented increase in international travel and a consequent malfunction of the passport system. The speed and frequency of trains, combined with the number of passengers they carried and the fact that they crossed multiple borders, made enforcement of the passport laws exceedingly difficult. Seeing this, authorities of most of the European and American countries relaxed their passport requirements in the 1880s. Up until World War I, passports were often not required at all for travel within Europe, and border crossings were hardly a procedure. Consequently, very few people held passports in that period.

During World War I, however, European governments had to introduce passport requirements for security reasons, as well as controlling the emigration of people. These requirements remained in place after the war, too. The truth is that most of the countries did not wish to keep their passport policies as harsh as they were during the war. But the developed Western countries, which were the main destinations of immigrants, did not step back from their policies. Because of this, all the nations had to agree on a global standard for passports. In 1920, the League of Nations held a conference on passports (the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets). In the conference, passport guidelines and a general booklet design were created.

The post-war world’s passport was an object of freedom for the advantaged people, and a chain for others. As author Atossa Araxia Abrahamian said: “A passport is a kind of shield: when you are a citizen of a wealthy democracy”. Abrahamian and other critics of the 1920 resolution argue that passports were meant to be a tool to control people’s actions and movement. Nothing actually changed for the people who could afford touristic travels, but these regulations were a huge obstacle for the illegal immigrants, who were hopeless after a 5-year global war.

World War II and the formation of the Eastern Bloc did not help with the situation either, causing only higher tensions and security measures in border checkpoints. The United Nations held a travel conference in 1963, yet no new guidelines were implemented until the 1980s. Passport standardization was brought back as an issue in 1980 by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization). ICAO put new standards including those for machine-readable passports. Such passports contain an area where information about the passport holder is printed as strings of alphanumerical characters. This enabled border controllers to process these passports more quickly and less erroneously with machines, without having to input the information manually into a computer.

The most recent standard is for the biometric passports that we still use today. Introduced for the first time by Malaysia in 1998, these contain biometrics to authenticate the identity of the traveler. The identity information of the holder is stored in a computer chip within the passport’s cover page, making it a half electronic document. Passports are also supplied with watermarks and holograms to prevent forgeries. The Nicaraguan passport, for instance, contains 89 separate security features, including bidimensional barcodes, holograms, and watermarks, and is one of the least forgeable documents in the world.

With the formation of international organizations, the representatives and workers of these organizations needed an unaffiliated and independent passport for their works. For this purpose, organizations like the UN, the European Union, the African Union, and the Interpol are entitled to issue diplomatic passports. Although these passports can not be used for touristic purposes, they are very respected when used for diplomatic travels.


Respectively: UN – Weimar Republic – World Service Authority – Republic of Korea Passports

Today’s world calls for globalization in all fields, and traveling is no exception for this. In fact, it is the basis of globalization. Passports and visas still stand as an obstacle to traveling for many people. While some countries have “powerful” passports which make their nationals exempt from visa requirement from many countries, some other countries do not have such “powerful” passports. The most powerful passport grants visa-free travel to 118 countries, whereas the least powerful one grants visa-free travel to only 27. This fact alone shows us the inequality and exclusion that passport and visa policies create between nations. Therefore, visa exemption and universal visa-free travel is usually demanded by people all over the world. But there is an even more globalized approach to the topic: The World Passport. It is a real passport sold by the World Service Authority, a non-profit organization that promotes world citizenship. Although only 6 countries ever accepted this document as valid, it is still obtainable and stands as a reference for future works on this field.

A dynamic global landscape of new states, ever going conflicts, and discriminatory ethnic policies continue to fuel statelessness. Those people who do not belong to any nationality, count for at least 10 million people around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These people are often denied passports, and as a result, freedom of movement. Establishing a world passport is thought to be the best possible solution to these people’s statelessness as well.

Although we stand very far away from establishing a universal world passport, there are some undergoing changes on the passports. In 2018, Netherlands issued the first-ever gender-free passport with gender stated as “X”, instead of “V” for women or “M” for men. However, a similar bid was overruled by the court in the UK. Currently, 12 countries offer “X” as an option in their passports.

All in all, depending on our nation, a passport may grant us either extreme privilege or extreme exclusion. Passports will be around for a long while, but as much as they evolved through centuries, they will have to keep evolving until they finally reach the equal and monotype world passport form. We hope that this evolution increases its pace, as more and more people continue to suffer from statelessness and the inability to migrate every day. (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

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