576: Passport

A Thousand Things to Talk About
576: Passport

Do you have a passport? Have you ever used it?

Full episode script

The passport, as it currently exists in the world, is a much more modern document than I originally thought.


That doesn’t mean that the passport is an entirely new idea. In Britain, there are records of this document going back hundreds of years. As The Guardian published in 2006:

In Britain, the earliest surviving reference to a “safe conduct” document appears during the reign of Henry V, in an Act of Parliament dated 1414. At that time, documents like these could be issued by the king to anyone, whether they were English or not. Foreign nationals even got theirs free of charge, while English subjects had to pay.


By the 1540s, the word passport was used in Britain, but were in no way standardized. It was only in the aftermath of the first world war, that the League of Nations championed the idea of a worldwide standard for nation-based identity documents. While not all countries were a big fan of the idea, the fact that some countries embraced the idea meant that others were forced into having some kind of national travel document.


As Gulia Pines wrote in National Geographic, quote:

“Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others.”


As The Smithsonian reported, In the first half of the 19th century, the State Department only issued a few hundred passports per year, for the very basic reason that international travel was far too expensive for most average people. And it wasn’t until 1937 that married women were issued their own passports under their own names, instead of as footnotes of their husband’s documents.


As the cost of travel went down, and as passports became more popular forms of identification, more and more were issued. According to the US State department, in 2017 over 21 million passports were issued.  


Passports are also not an incorruptible proof of national identity. As one researcher points out, national identity is essentially for sale in some areas. For example, countries like Malta and Cyprus essentially sell citizenship—the former for over $1 million, the latter for significant investments.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.