Have Paper Will Travel: What You Might Not Know About the Passport

We take many things for granted while traveling, and the passport is near the top of the list. When one pauses to consider the absurdity of this small little booklet, one also wonders how the modern convention of a piece of paper as a prerequisite for international travel came into being in the first place.

Today the role of the passport is simple. It guarantees the name and nationality of its holder. This has not always been the case and for most of its history, some version of the passport usually guaranteed much more.

The first recorded instance of some sort of travel document can be found in the Bible, in the book of Nehemiah. In the fifth century BCE, Nehemiah traveled to Judea carrying a letter “to the governors beyond the river” requesting safe passage for him as he traveled through their lands. From the first recorded mention, a passport promised a certain level of protection while traveling in another ruler’s region.

Various iterations of these safe passage letters evolved over the centuries until they were revolutionized under the rule of  King Henry V of England. During this time Parliament passed an Act giving the monarch authority to issue safe conduct documents. It was also around this time when the passport got its name. Individuals had specific towns listed in their papers indicating which city gates, or portes, were permitted for entry; pass porte, became passport.

The United States had a form of travel document from its earliest days, modeled after the French version. But the modern day concept of a travel document as a requirement for travel did not come about until the 20th century.

World War I put an end to effortless border crossings as a basic security measure. Following the war many nations established their own requirements and in 1920, the doomed League of Nations established standardized passport guidelines and design recommendations. Rather than simple descriptions of the document bearer, photos were stapled to the newly important booklets.

As strange as it may seem to us today, true international passport standardization did not occur until 1980 and was then only initiated by civil aviation authorities.

As anyone will tell you though, a passport is much more than a mass of paper and stamps. It is a right of passage. I still remember standing in line with my mother to submit the paperwork for my first passport as a teen. Since that time I have had three passports, and will soon have to add more pages to my current one. My passport is a symbol of independence, adventure and amazing experiences yet to come. Whenever I open the safe and tuck the passport in my pocket, there is a smile on my face in anticipation of the travel adventure on which I am about to embark.

What does your passport mean to you? How old were you when you got your first one?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

6 thoughts on “Have Paper Will Travel: What You Might Not Know About the Passport”

  1. i got my first passport when i was hmm, 11 or 12, for a family trip to the UK. since then, it has become a treasured item, a record of experiences i’ve had, and blank pages to tempt me to explore our world even further.

    when my last passport expired, I scanned in the pages.

  2. I got my first passport when I was 4 or 5, I think, because that was the first time I went abroad! Hong Kong and China, though I don’t remember it happening!

    The passport really is something important. My parents used to keep our passports for us and I think they already threw out the expired ones! :(

      1. I have my old, full and expired one up on my wall, each page (copies) up there in it memory glory! Perfect for those days at home with wanderlust!

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