What Your Passport Reveal About You?

I am not referring to the collection of border stamps and visas acquired during your travels, but rather the factual characteristics that defines you during travel at borders – physical attributes.

Furthermore, let us ponder the peculiar nature of passport photos. Why is it that they invariably resemble mugshots taken for criminal records? What insights can a border control officer glean from your passport photo? How do they discern your true identity, the individual standing before them?

Typically, officers have a mere 30 seconds to verify your credentials. Of course, there are also “Automated Border Control” (ABC) or e-Gates available. These e-Gates rely on two primary factors for identification purposes: your facial features and fingerprint data in conjunction with your biometric passport.

Prior to the mid-19th century passport border characteristics travel

passports encompassed a comprehensive array of up to twelve distinctive physical attributes that delineated their holder. Remarkably, these travel documents even included personal particulars such as one’s religious affiliation and occupation. Let us contemplate a hypothetical scenario where this antiquated practice persisted in modern times.

Instead of requesting fingerprints for identification purposes, a border officer might prompt individuals to reveal your teeth, or inquire about their religious beliefs or occupation. Although the latter occasionally occurs even in the present day, envision a world where such inquiries serve as the primary means of establishing one’s identity.

The core question at hand is the contemporary relevance of “personal characteristics” in the context of border control. While it is true that not everyone possesses the ability to utilize Automated Border Control (ABC) systems, and not all individuals possess biometric passports, the significance of physical attributes for verifying one’s identity persists. However, the reason why these details are no longer included in our travel documents is a matter of societal norms and sensitivities.

Presently, describing an individual based on their physical characteristics, religious beliefs, or occupational background is widely regarded as offensive and unsuitable in most cases. As a result, such information is omitted from official travel documents.

In 1835 passport border characteristics travel

the Belgians issued a requirement demanding that British visitors present passports detailing the physical description of the bearer. This ruling was met with vehement opposition by Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, who found it deeply objectionable. Refusing to comply with this mandate, Palmerston declared his refusal to implement such a requirement. As a consequence, Belgium retaliated by denying entry to an English nobleman.

In response, Lord Palmerston staunchly affirmed that if the Belgians were willing to harm their own tourism industry by excluding all British subjects from their country, they were well within their rights to do so. However, he made it clear that British passports would never contain any personal details beyond the name of the holder. Ultimately, faced with Palmerston’s resolute stance, the Belgians capitulated and withdrew their demand.

Remarkably passport border characteristics travel

until 1914, British passports did not include any physical characteristics and simply stated “British Subject traveling to…” as the sole information. From 1915 until the early 1980s, passports did feature details such as the bearer’s height, eye color, and hair color. However, since the 1970s, only the height information has been retained in British passports.

In the present era, standardized passport photos have largely taken the place of the extensive descriptions previously used. As depicted in the accompanying image, these photos have become the primary means of identification. However, what occurs if one’s appearance undergoes alterations? A new hairstyle, a change in hair color, or the growth of a beard or mustache can render Automated Border Control (ABC) gates ineffective. Even if an individual undergoes scrutiny by a border control officer, they may still be subjected to a secondary examination.

Personal characteristics continue to hold significance, particularly during a rapid assessment that involves comparing the passport photo with the individual presenting the document. Are the nose, ears, mouth, and lips resemblance? Does the person approximate the same height as indicated in the passport? Is the eye color depicted in the photo a matching shade of blue? These factors contribute to the evaluation process, allowing for a preliminary determination of identity.

Would border control officers find their task easier if they had access to a broader range of characteristics? Should we consider reintroducing some of these attributes into the bio data page of our passports?

Face: Beautiful

I happen to possess a passport from 1854 that belonged to a young lady, and it boldly states: “Face: beautiful.” However, the perception of beauty is subjective, leaving room for interpretation. Moreover, what about including occupation details in passports?

In the past, passports used to include job descriptions that could range from intriguing to amusing, such as “Billiard Table Fitter.” Imagine the amusement it would bring to border guards encountering modern job titles like Chief Dream Officer (CDO), Chief Visionary Officer (CVO), or even Director of First Impressions (Receptionist).

Perhaps the most practical approach is to entrust the verification process entirely to machines utilizing facial recognition, iris scans, fingerprint identification, and vein pattern analysis. Approximately 150 countries have now adopted biometric passports. Machines offer objectivity, are immune to mood swings, and generally exhibit a lower likelihood of error.

However, when traveling to any of the remaining 43 countries, one still encounters the pleasure of persuading a border control officer that their claimed identity is genuine.


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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.

Question? Contact me...

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