If you’ve had a new passport recently you’ll have spent hours in photo booths trying to take a photo that meets complicated requirements and, at the same time, captures your unique beauty. But how long have passports been around?
In fact passports have been a requirement in most parts of the world for less than a hundred years. They existed before that but only for a few people in particular circumstances. Imagine, for example, that you’re a courtier of Elizabeth I sent on an errand to Italy. You will probably be given a letter signed by the Queen that tells people who you are and asks that you are well treated while you’re abroad, a passport.
Tradespeople were sometimes given passports, allowing them to pass in and out of particular towns and cities. But most people didn’t need passports until the First World War and could travel where they liked without them. Of course, not many people did a lot of travelling abroad in those days.
During the First World War, governments became very keen on identifying anyone passing in and out of their country, for obvious reasons, and made passports compulsory for everyone crossing the border in either direction. After the war, this rule remained.
In 1920 the League of Nations agreed standards for passports for all its member countries, and most passports today are based on those standards: they identify the passport holder, ask for protection while abroad and give the holder the right to return.
Biometrics: If your passport was issued recently, it probably contains biometric information about you, for example, your fingerprints, distances between facial features, or the iris or retina in your eye. This information is stored in an electronic chip to improve security.
Have you ever had your passport stamped? Passport stamps keep a colorful record of the countries you’ve visited – although, these days, if you’re a citizen of the European Union you won’t get stamped when you visit other EU countries.