The Passport Throughout History

A History of the Passport

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Historical Map for representative purposes only - no boundaries are claimed to be accurate by NYK Daily

One of the oldest known records of paperwork that served in a role similar to that of a passport is observed in the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemiah 2:7–9, recording from 450 BCE, mentions that Nehemiah, an administrator working for the King Artaxerxes I of Persia, sought permission to travel to Judea; the king awarded leave and presented him a letter “to the royal governors beyond the river” petitioning safe passage for him as he walked through their lands.

Arthashastra (3rd century BCE) discusses passes issued at the rate of one Masha per pass to exit and enter the country. Chapter 34 of the Arthashastra’s Second Book covers the duties of the Mudrādhyakṣa (meaning ‘Seals Superintendent’), who must present sealed passes before an individual could enter or leave the nation.

As old as the Western Han(202 BCE-220 CE), passports were an essential part of the Chinese bureaucracy. They expected such details as height, age, and bodily features. These passports (also called Zhuan) ascertained an individual’s ability to move throughout royal counties and through points of control. Even kids needed passports, but those under two years in their mother’s care might not have needed them.

In the medieval Islamic Caliphate, a unique type of passport was the bara’a, a certificate for paid taxes. Only people who ultimately paid their jizya (for dhimmis) or zakah (for Muslims) taxes were allowed to travel to all areas of the Caliphate; thus, the bara’a certificate was a type of an ancient passport.

Arabic papyrus with an exit permit, dated January 24, 722 AD, pointing to the regulation of travel activities. From Hermopolis Magna, Egypt

Etymological references show that the term “passport” is from an ancient document that was needed to move through the gate (or “porte”) of a town wall or to pass through a boundary. In medieval Europe, such certificates were issued to foreign travelers by local authorities (as opposed to residents, as is the modern practice) and usually contained a list of cities and towns the receipt holder was permitted to pass through or enter. On the whole, documents were not necessary for travel to seaports, which were deemed open trading points, but records were must to travel inland from seaports.

King Henry V of England is attributed to have created what some consider the first passport in the contemporary sense to help his team prove who they were in foreign lands. The earliest reference to these documents is recorded in a 1414 Act of Parliament. In 1540, presenting travel documents in England became the Privy Council of England’s role, and it was around this period that the term “passport” was utilized for the first time.

In 1794, presenting British passports became the work of the Office of the Secretary of State. The 1548 Imperial Diet of Augsburg ordered the public to hold imperial documents for travel, at the risk of exile.

A rapid expansion of wealth and railway infrastructure in Europe starting in the mid-nineteenth century led to sizeable international travel volume and a following unique dilution of the passport system for around thirty years before World War I. The speed of trains and the number of travelers that crossed many borders made passport law enforcement hard. The general reaction was the passport requirements relaxation. During the second half of the nineteenth century and up to WW (World War) I, passports was not necessary, on the whole, for travel within Europe, and crossing a border was a comparatively straightforward procedure. Consequently, relatively few people held passports.

During World War I, European governments launched border passport requirements for security reasons and to control the movement of people with useful skills. These controls remained in place post-war, becoming a model, though questionable, procedure. British tourists of the 1920s complained, particularly about physical descriptions and attached photographs, which they considered led to a “nasty dehumanization.”

The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act became law in 1914, defining citizenship and designing a passport’s booklet form.

In 1920, the League of Nations discussed passports, the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities, and Tickets.

A general booklet design and passport guidelines resulted from the meeting, followed by conferences in 1926 and 1927.

WW2 Spanish official passport issued in late 1944 and used during the last 6 months of the war by an official being sent to Berlin

While the UN (United Nations) held a long travel conference in 1963, no passport regulations arose from it. Passport standardization came about in the mid-1980s, under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) auspices. ICAO figures include those for machine-readable passports. Such documents have an area where some of the data otherwise written in textual form is recorded as strings of alphanumeric characters, printed in a manner fitting for optical character verification. This enables law enforcement agents and border controllers to process these passports more quickly without entering the information manually into a computer. ICAO declares Doc 9303 Machine Readable Travel Documents, the technical standard for machine-readable passports.

A more recent standard is for biometric passports. These contain biometrics to verify the identity of travelers. The passport’s critical information is stored on a tiny RFID computer chip, much like data stored on smartcards. Like some smartcards, the passport booklet design calls for an enclosed contactless chip that can hold digital signature data to guarantee the passport and biometric data integrity.

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