According to the U.S. Department of State, there were nearly 147,000,000 U.S. citizens who had a valid U.S. passport in 2019. And that’s just in our country, alone! If you took everyone around the world who had a passport, it would be billions of people.
So with all of these world citizens who have a passport, how did passports begin? And how did they get to the point they’re at now? What’s their particular history in the United States?
I found out.
450 B.C.: A Note Of Biblical Proportions
The earliest reference to something that was “kinda sorta” like a passport was in the Bible. The Book of Nehemiah tells how King Artaxerxes i of Persia sent Nehemiah, his high-ranking royal cup-bearer, to Judah, to assist with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after they had been broken down. Nehemiah received papers from his king requesting “governors of the province beyond the river” to grant him safe passage. This letter was known as Safe Conduct and it was how nobles and governments solicited safe passage for individuals who were going through foreign territories.
1414: It’s Official!
England was the first country to put Safe Conduct “into the books.” It was documented as an Act of Parliament and with that, King Henry V was able to issue Safe Conduct papers to anyone he wanted (Brits or foreign nationals). These helped to prove his subjects’ identity when they visited foreign lands and it was the beginning of passports as we understand and use them today.
1540: It has a name!
It’s said that in medieval Europe, a pass (read: a document) was required to pass through the “porte” (read: “gate”) of city walls. However, they also needed something to pass through maritime ports. No one’s sure which way was how the name “passport” eventually stuck
1780: Meanwhile, In The U.S….
The U.S. wasn’t a thing in 1540, but by 1775 it was and that was around the time that American consular offices were issuing passports to select citizens in the 13 states during the Revolutionary War. Passports were printed on one side of sheets of paper, included a description of the bearer, and were valid for up to six months. They were designed by Benjamin Franklin and as the minister to France, he based it on the documents that the country was using at the time.
From that point on, passports slowly because to morph into how we know them today. During that path of nearly 250 years in the U.S., passports walked some interesting footsteps, including when they could be issued by cities and states (that ended in 1856, when the Dep’t of State because the sole entity that could issue passports), as well as several decades (ending in 1941) when passports weren’t required for travel (although lots of people asked for them anyway).
The plan for a passport redesign has been hinted for a few years. Conde Naste Traveler reported in early 2016 that later that year:
…the passport will have an embedded data chip on the information page protected by a polycarbonate coating; this will help prevent your book from getting wet and bending, and—should your passport be stolen—the chip will keep people from Jason Bourne-ing your page and falsifying an identity. The passport number will also be laser cut as tapered, perforated holes through pages—just one of several components of the “Next Generation” passport, including artwork upgrade (better-looking eagles?), new security features such as a watermark, “tactile features,” and more “optically variable” inks. In other words: Some designs on pages will be raised, and ink—depending on the viewing angle—will appear to be different colors.
To date, the next generation of passport hasn’t been released. This PDF from GPO.gov suggests that will happen during the first quarter of fiscal year 2020. So…we’ll see.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary