Passport history from modern times until today

The history of passports can be traced back to ancient times, but the modern concept of passports as we know them today began to emerge in the early 20th century[1][3]. Here is a summary of the passport history from modern times until today:

Early Developments

In the 15th century, documents known as “sauf conduit” or safe conduct passes were used to grant passage to individuals for specific purposes, such as negotiations[1]. In 1414, the British Parliament mentioned the term “passport” in an Act, but the origins of the word are still debated[2].

Foreigners and Merchants

Passports were initially granted to foreigners and were mostly used for trade and commerce purposes[2]. In France, King Louis XI began issuing certificates authorizing the free circulation of merchandise in 1420[2]. Over time, governments started to view passports as a means of security and identification, especially with increased mobility leading up to the Industrial Revolution[2].

Standardization and Control

In the 20th century, passports began to be used in a more standardized manner. The first modern British passport was introduced in the early 20th century[3]. The Privy Council and later the office of the secretary of state took control of issuing passports in the UK[3]. Passports were not generally required for international travel until the First World War[3].

Evolution of Technology

Passports have evolved technologically over time. Today’s passports often include microchips, holograms, biometric photos, and barcodes for enhanced security and identification[1]. These technological advancements have made passports more secure and difficult to counterfeit.

Illustration shows the moon rocket of "Les Aventures de Tintin - De avonturen van Kuifje" by Hergé on a page in the new Belgian international passport Credit: ©Herge-Moulinsart, Benoit Doppagne/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images
Illustration shows the moon rocket of “Les Aventures de Tintin – De avonturen van Kuifje” by Hergé on a page in the new Belgian international passport Credit: ©Herge-Moulinsart, Benoit Doppagne/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images

Passport Records

Passport records have been maintained by various government agencies. In the United States, passport records have been maintained since March 1925[4]. However, passport records do not include evidence of travel such as entrance or exit stamps, visas, or residence permits[4].

Register with small photos, Rio de Janeiro 1937 Archivsignatur PA AA AB 2/709

Passport Statistics

Statistical data is available on the number of passports issued by year and the number of valid passports in circulation[5]. For example, in the United States, the number of passports issued has increased over the years, with over 14 million passports issued in 2009[5].

Passport Fees

Fees for a passport can greatly vary from country to country and can be anything between $30 and $300.[7]

It’s important to note that passport requirements and regulations vary between countries, and the specific details of passport history may differ depending on the region.



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FAQ Passport History 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.

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