Origins of the United States Passport: Part 4

Origins of the United States Passport

From the Civil War years to the dawn of the 20th Century

On August 31, 1861, a significant event unfolded in American history when the oath of allegiance was introduced as a requirement on passport applications during a period of civil war. This momentous development marked a pivotal juncture in the nation’s progress, as citizens were mandated to affirm their loyalty to the United States in order to secure a passport.

Here is a US passport from the Legation in London, signed by Charles Francis Adams, 1861.

As time advanced, modifications were made to the passport application process. In 1862, a three-dollar fee was instituted. In March 1863, a portion of the 1856 act was revoked, enabling the State Department to issue passports to non-citizens eligible for military service, provided they posted a bond before departing the country. Origins of the United States Passport

By 1864, the passport fee was elevated to five dollars, underscoring the growing significance of this document. Nevertheless, by June 1865, individuals entering and departing the United States were no longer obligated to present a passport.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War Origins of the United States Passport

Congress enacted a law in 1866 stipulating that passports could exclusively be granted to citizens, reinforcing the concept of national identity. Subsequently, in 1869, the State Department issued the initial General Instructions for passport applicants.

In 1870, individuals applying for passports had to make oaths, affidavits, or affirmations under the penalty of perjury. At the same time, as part of a State Department reorganization, the Passport Bureau was established, and in 1871, the five-dollar passport fee was abolished. Origins of the United States Passport

In 1873, the General Instructions of September 1st extended passport validity from one year to two years and made the oath of allegiance a formal requirement. Furthermore, the General Instructions explicitly stated that the applicant’s name must match exactly on the application and the naturalization certificate provided as proof of citizenship, particularly for naturalized citizens. The General Instructions also dissolved the Passport Bureau and transferred the responsibility for passport issuance to the Bureau of Archives and Indexes.

By 1874, a five-dollar fee was reinstated for passports. In 1886, the Secretary of State clarified that it was department policy not to issue passports to Mormons seeking to make proselytes. Subsequently, in 1888, separate application forms were introduced for native citizens, naturalized citizens, and individuals claiming naturalization through a husband or parent, accompanied by a reduction of the passport fee to one dollar. Origins of the United States Passport

In 1892, the phrase “Good for two years from date” was printed on passports, further standardizing the passport application process. Throughout these changes, the passport retained its critical status as a document embodying the values and identity of the United States of America.

US passport Legation Skt Petersburg 1895
US passport, St. Petersburg, 1895

The late 19th century

In the late 19th century specifically, from 1896 onward, the United States government made significant advancements in standardizing and formalizing the regulations governing passport issuance. During this period, the “General Instructions for Passport Applicants” underwent a name change to the more formal and comprehensive title of “Rules Governing the Issuance of Passports.”

Greater precision and consistency

This alteration in terminology reflected a broader shift towards greater precision and consistency in the passport application procedure. The new title underscored the importance of adhering to a set of clear and precise guidelines and regulations designed to ensure the accurate and proper issuance of passports to eligible applicants. Origins of the United States Passport

General Instructions Origins of the United States Passport

By adopting this more formal and exact language, the government demonstrated its commitment to providing citizens with a dependable and trustworthy means of identification and travel.

The renaming of the “General Instructions” to the “Rules Governing the Issuance of Passports” represented a critical juncture in the evolution of passport issuance, as the government aimed to establish a more rigorous and uniform approach to the issuance of this significant document.


The next article in this series will describe how the U.S. Passport and its related fees and procedures changed as the country entered the 20th century.


– “The American Passport – Its History 1898, Washington Government Printing Office”
– “The United States passport: past, present, future 1976 –U.S. Dept. of State – Passport Office”
– “The Passport In America – The history of a document, Craig Robertson, Oxford University Press Inc., 2010”
– “U.S. Diplomacy & Passport History – A guideline for passport collectors by Tom Topol”