From biblical times to biometric technology, the paper passport has become increasingly sophisticated and secure over the decades. It has also come to represent safety and citizenship, freedom and status.
In a progressively open world where international mobility was booming pre-COVID-19, passports are an all-too-familiar part of the travel experience. Hundreds of millions of passports are in circulation at any given moment, yet many travellers take for granted the essential document’s significance as they scan their passport at an eGate or pass through customs.
But passports are fascinating when you think about it. Not only have they come a long way – technologically, functionally and symbolically – since first introduced several centuries ago, but they have also come to represent identity, belonging, and an increasingly valuable asset: global mobility.
“The value of a passport isn’t just that it’s an identification document,” says Armand Arton, President and CEO of Arton Capital. “It’s a piece of paper that represents freedom and rights – and it’s an extremely useful tool in the hands of whoever holds it.”
According to theologians, the concept of the passport dates all the way back to biblical times. As early as 450 BC, the Book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament describes a letter written by King Artaxerxes I of Persia, requesting the safe passage of one of his royal officials as he traveled through the lands of “the governors beyond the river.”
Years later, elites in the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) are said to have introduced physical details, like age and height, on early travel documents as a means to verify identity, enabling Chinese bureaucrats to move across imperial territories and checkpoints.
History credits the first iteration of the ‘modern’ passport to King Henry V of England, who ordered the creation of an official document that would safeguard his subjects in foreign lands as part of the Safe Conducts Act of 1414. The word itself, “passport”, stems from the French phrase, passe porte – meaning, to pass through a door or gate – a term given to medieval travel documents that authorized a foreigner’s entry into Europe’s walled cities.
By the late 19th century, a growing need emerged for a formal system that effectively tracked and controlled the global movement of people, partly due to the Great Atlantic Migration from roughly the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. At its peak, the first mass migration in history would see upwards of 11,700 European immigrants arriving on New York City’s Ellis Island each day – most of whom were undocumented. At the same time, continued fears of German spies in Allied countries in the aftermath of World War I fueled calls for tighter border controls and greater scrutiny of visitors.
In 1920, the modern passport officially came to be after the League of Nations – an international organization tasked with maintaining world peace post-WWI – decreed that the world needed a “uniform” passport design to return to pre-war mobility, facilitate greater openness and fuel the “economic recovery of the world.”
In October that year, the League held the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets, which laid out an international passport design and regulations. Remarkably, that template – a 32-page booklet, measuring 6.1 by 4.1 inches, with four pages of physical identifiers such as facial characteristics, occupation and residence – has changed very little in the last century.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an intergovernmental agency associated with the United Nations, took over passport standardization in April 1946, after the League of Nations ceased operations. While they still look quite similar to the 1920 design, today’s standard passports have evolved to be more tech-savvy and secure. They typically include a machine readable zone, which commonly includes a string of machine-readable alphanumeric characters, as well as a code for the issuing state or country, personal data, signature and photograph.
In the early 21st century, rapidly advancing chip technology revolutionized how passports could be read and verified. In 2009, ICAO set a deadline requiring all nations and territories to issue machine-readable passports (MRPs) containing electronic chips by April 1, 2010. The organization also mandated that all non-MRPs expire by November 24, 2015.
“Today, more than 100 countries issue e-passports [another name for MRPs], with an estimated circulation worldwide of more than 500 million – a number that is growing by the day,” according to ICAO.
For Arton, the most exciting change he’s seen in his lifetime has been the introduction of biometrics. “Biometric-enabled e-passports are the gold standard today,” he says. “Fingerprints, facial recognition – all of this goes into an embedded chip in the booklet now, and it is what has made passports more secure, and far more difficult to copy.”
These tech-savvy booklets enable quicker and more secure border crossings, as well as new visa-free agreements between countries. “Countries won’t agree to a visa-free arrangement with another country if it doesn’t have a certain level of security. If it’s not biometric, you’re not going to get that agreement,” says Arton, adding that more secure passports that are difficult to copy or fake can improve a nation’s passport power ranking and mobility score.
Just as the design and technology behind passports continue to evolve, so too does the scope of their power. As greater mobility and multiple citizenships become more sought-after, passports have emerged as a valuable asset that governments and individuals alike can leverage.
“Passports can be a powerful tool to attract foreign direct investment [via citizenship by investment programs], because some come with improved rights, such as international access, quality of life, education, and better medical care,” says Arton. “There are people around the world who are ready to pay millions for a passport – that was inconceivable 25 years ago.”