A passport is a travelers single, most important piece he or she can own today—it’s a “ticket” to exiting and entering any country in the world. But did you know that the passport as we know it today (with our photo, date of birth, country of birth, etc.) only came into existence during the 20th century around the time of World War II? Yet, the first references of a passport-type document can be found in the Hebrew Bible.
Beginning in 450 B.C., moving to Medieval Europe, and then into the 21st century, the passport has transformed from a piece of paper with writing into a biometric form of identity for citizens of different nations. Let’s take a look at the eras that transformed this travel document into what it is today.
Pre-Julian Roman Calendar
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The Hebrew Bible’s reference of the first “passport-type” document was a letter “to the governors beyond the river” that grated Nehemiah, an official to the King of Persia, King Artaxerxes I, safe passage to Judea.
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It wasn’t until Medieval Europe that an official document for traveling comes into play. This document was given by local authorities to foreign travelers, allowing them to pass through the gates of a city or town. For the most part, the document had a list of places the traveler was allowed to pass through.
15th & 16th Century England
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During King Henry the V of England’s reign, documents found in a 1414 Act of Parliament showed that the King gave his subject a type of “passport” that paved the way for the more modern one we know today. The documents the King provided help identify who his officials were when they traveled to other cities far from home.
It wasn’t until a century later in 1540 that the term “passport” was used, although only few held one, nor was it required. Eight years later, it was the Imperial Diet of Augsburg that instructed its people to carry imperial documents while traveling, or else they would be permanently exiled. This was the first time the passport became a necessary document, even if it was for only a small group of citizens.
World War I
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In the 18th century, railroads dramatically expanded, allowing people to travel often at greater distances than ever before. During this expansion, it made it hard to enforce the use of passports, and once again, very few people had them.
As Europe headed into World War I, governments there initiated passport control at the borders to secure them. Even after the war ended, passport control continued to grow.
(Image source: USHMM Collections)
In 1920, the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets was held by the League of Nations, establishing the design, size and interior elements of the passport book.
However, it wasn’t until 1960 that the United Nations (UN) met to discuss passport standardization. It took anther twenty years for the standardization to finally take place, thanks to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a division of the UN committed to international air transport.