U.S. Passports Through the Ages

The issuance of passports can be traced back to around 450 B.C. when the King of Persia appointed the Babylonian, Nehemiah as governor of Palestine. “Nehemiah requested and was granted a letter of safe conduct to insure his safety.”¹ This was the first formal request for what we now know as a passport.

U.S. Passports 2016

The American passport has evolved over the years. The first passports were issued to individuals and to ships or vessels, by the Secretary of State, or under his authority by a diplomatic or consular officer serving overseas.² While the Department of State was the official issuing agency, governors, mayors and even notaries public often authorized passports.³ An act passed in 1856 outlawed this practice and stated the authority of issuing passports rested solely with the Secretary of State. Passports were also issued for travel within the United States. In particular, this was needed for safe passage through Indian territories.

Early passports were a single sheet of engraved white paper confirming the citizenship of the individual and granting the bearer, be it an individual or even a ship or vessel, safe pas-sage to enter foreign territory. Beginning in 1796 passports described the general appearance of the bearer including age, height, eye color and hair color. At that time there was no standard passport, so the general appearance of the passport varied depending on who issued it.

In 1804 Caleb Strong, Governor of Massachusetts, issued a passport to Joseph Warren Revere, son of Paul Revere, who was traveling to Europe. It stated Revere “going to Europe pass safely and freely, without giving, or permitting to be given to him, any hindrances, but on the contrary affording to him all aid and protection, as we would do in like case for all those that might be recommended to us.”⁴

In 1811 the first passport including a physical description of the bearer was issued by the Department of State.⁵ A few years later the physical description was moved to the left side of the passport and separated from the text.

The early passports were only good for the duration of the journey. New passports had to be issued each time an individual or vessel traveled to foreign territory. In 1873 the duration of a passport was changed to two years.⁶ During World War I this was changed to six months, but reverted back to two years at the conclusion of the war.

Until 1856 no fees were charged for acquiring a passport. At that time a fee of $1 was instituted for all passports issued abroad. Passports issued domestically were still free. The fee was increased to $3 in 1862 and this time it included domestic as well as applications from abroad.⁷

Prior to the mid-1840s there was no formal passport application. A personal letter ad-dressed to the Secretary of State including a physical description, a declaration of citizen-ship and an outline of the applicants travel plans was sufficient.⁸

In 1845 Secretary of State James Buchanan issued the first circular outlining the guide-lines for applicants. They required proof of identity and citizenship. Applicants were required to have an affidavit witnessed by a notary public and signed by another citizen to verify their identity and claim of citizen-ship. ⁹

The outbreak of World War I brought sever-al changes to the passport system. First and foremost U.S. citizens were warned to carry their passports when going abroad. Another modification was the requirement that all passports include a photograph of the bearer. A December 30, 1914 New York Times article stressed the new “rigid passport rules.” January 1, 1915 any persons wishing to enter Germany had to have a passport with a properly attached photograph or they would be denied admittance.

In 1917 a new passport was designed with the bearer’s description in the lower left

hand corner directly opposite the photo-graph. The first passport in the form of a booklet was introduced on January 3, 1918.¹⁰

Passports have been modernized many times over the years. Today you can fill out an application online and submit a digital photograph. The fee for the passport book is $110 and for an identity card $30.

It won’t be long before the passport book is a thing of the past. Passport chips and ePassports will become the standard. Already national identity cards containing biometric information are being used in many countries including the United States. Passports, like everything else, have to stay in step with modern times and technology is a huge part of the present and future of passports.


¹U.S. Dept. of State. Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs. The United States Passport: Past, Present, Future. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1976. p. 1

²U.S. Dept. of State. The American Passport: Its History and a Digest of Laws, Rulings, and Regulations Governing Its Issuance by the Department of State. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1898, p. 4

³U.S. Dept. of State. The United States Pass-port, p. 31

⁴Id. p. 27

⁵Robertson, Craig. The Passport in America: The History of a Document. New York: Ox-ford, University Press, 2010, p. 253

⁶U.S. Dept. of State. The American Passport, p. 75

⁷Robertson, Craig. The Passport in America, p. 95

⁸Id. P. 92

⁹Id. P. 97

¹⁰U.S. Dept. of State. The United States Pass-port, p. 63

2016 passports.

Passport of Smyra & Constantinople J. Hosford Smith issued at the Consulate of the U.S. Beirut, June 9, 1853.