Origins of the United States Passport: Part 4

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 In March 1863, a portion of the 1856 act was revoked, enabling the State Department to issue passports to non-citizens eligible for military service, provided they posted a bond before departing the country.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”


incl. FREE guideline!

FAQ Passport History
Passport collection, passport renewal, old passports for sale, vintage passport, emergency passport renewal, same day passport, passport application, pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...