Passport Physical Characteristics: History

Passport Physical Characteristics: History
When was the last time you examined your passport more closely? I’m not referring to the visas and border stamps you acquired while traveling, but rather the information that characterizes you physically.

Sudan passport 2005
Sudan passport 2005

The “charming” passport photo is another example. Why do they constantly resemble a criminal record mugshot? What does the border patrol officer see in your passport photo about you? How are you, the person who is in front of them, identifiable to them?

Officers typically have 20 seconds to complete verification. Yes, there are also e-Gates and “Automated Border Control” (ABC). Your face and fingerprints, along with your biometric passport, are the only two features an e-Gate needs to recognize you.

A passport could have up to twelve physical characteristics describing its bearer until halfway through the nineteenth century. Your passport may even include information about your religion and occupation. Assume this is still the case today.

Instead of asking for your fingerprints, a border control officer would say, “Show me your teeth,” or inquire about your religion or job, which still happens on occasion today. Passport Physical Characteristics History

Kingdom of Wuerttemberg 1858 with plenty of characteristics
Kingdom of Wuerttemberg 1858 with plenty of characteristics

Offensive And Unfitting

My point is: how relevant are “personal characteristics” today at border control?

Both ABCs and biometric passports are not available to everyone. Around 80% of all nations now issue biometric passports. Physical traits are still crucial for confirming someone’s identification. But why are they absent from our travel documents now? Well, it’s true that describing someone based on their appearance, religion, or line of work is now frequently viewed as inappropriate and disrespectful.

In 1835, Belgian authorities required British visitors to show a passport that included the bearer’s credentials. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, deemed the decision so abhorrent that he refused to carry it out. An English aristocrat was denied admission to Belgium after a brawl. Palmerston countered with the affirmation that, Passport Physical Characteristics History

“if they would damage their tourist trade by excluding all British subjects from Belgium they were perfectly entitled to do so but that no British passport would contain any particulars except the holders’ name.”

In the end, the Belgians backed down. In fact, until 1914 British passports never contained physical characteristics, but only stated: “British Subject traveling to the continent.” 

From 1915 until the early 1980’s the bearer’s height, eye, and hair color featured, and since the 1970s of those particulars only the height remained.

A True Likeness Passport Physical Characteristics History

Nowadays standardized passport photos have replaced most of those descriptions. See picture. But what happens if your appearance changes? Get a new haircut, change your hair color, or grow a beard or mustache, and the ABC gates will no longer work for you. Even if you are checked by a border control officer you may still face a second-line check.

Personal characteristics remain important, at least for a quick check, a comparison between the passport photo and the bearer of the document. Are the nose, ears, mouth, and lips similar? Does the person have approximately the same height? Is the eye color blue, like in the photo?

Would border control officers have an easier job with more characteristics at their disposal? Should we incorporate some of them into our passports biodata page again? 

I have a passport from 1854 in my collection that belonged to a young lady and it states: “Face: beautiful”. Well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder…

And what about the occupation? Passport Physical Characteristics History

Old passports used to contain job descriptions such as “Billiard Table Fitter”. Certain modern job titles would at least amuse the border guards: Chief Dream Officer (CDO), Chief Visionary Officer (CVO), or what about Director of First Impressions (Receptionist)?

So, best let the machines do all the verification work using face, iris, fingerprint, and vein pattern scans. About 150 countries have adopted biometric passports now. At least the machines are objective, never moody, and (usually) do not make mistakes. 

And if you travel to any other of the 43 countries? Well, you still have the pleasure of convincing a border control officer that you are who you say you are…

“I am who I am, who I say I am” (US passport 1953)