Why Do We Need Passports?
Passports have been used for centuries as a means of identifying and protecting people traveling in foreign countries in times of both peace and war. But the adoption of the passport as an essential travel document is fairly recent. The development of compulsory passports was accompanied by the introduction of Visas. These are endorsements by officials of foreign states that entry is permitted. Originally a passport, as the word indicates, meant permission to leave a port or to sail into it. Later this was extended to include a general permission of exit and entry.
Historically, legal authority to issue passports is founded on the exercise of each country’s executive discretion (or Crown prerogative). Certain legal tenets follow, namely: first, passports are issued in the name of the state; second, no person has a legal right to be issued a passport; third, each country’s government, in exercising its executive discretion, has complete and unfettered discretion to refuse to issue or to revoke a passport; and fourth, that the latter discretion is not subject to judicial review. However, legal scholars including A.J. Arkelian have argued that evolutions in both the constitutional law of democratic countries and the international law applicable to all countries now render those historical tenets both obsolete and unlawful.
Under some circumstances some countries allow people to hold more than one passport document. This may apply, for example, to people who travel a lot on business, and may need to have, say, a passport to travel on while another is awaiting a visa for another country. The UK for example may issue a second passport if the applicant can show a need and supporting documentation, such as a letter from an employer.
One of the earliest known references to paperwork that served in a role similar to that of a passport is found in the Hebrew Bible. Nehemiah 2:7-9, dating from approximately 450 BC, states that Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes I of Persia, asked permission to travel to Judea; the king granted leave and gave him a letter “to the governors beyond the river” requesting safe passage for him as he traveled through their lands.
In the medieval Islamic Caliphate, a form of passport was the bara’a, a receipt for taxes paid. Only people who paid their zakah (for Muslims) or jizya (for dhimmis) taxes were permitted to travel to different regions of the Caliphate; thus, the bara’a receipt was a “traveler’s basic passport.”
Etymological sources show that the term “passport” is from a medieval document that was required in order to pass through the gate (or “porte”) of a city wall or to pass through a territory. In medieval Europe, such documents were issued to foreign travelers by local authorities (as opposed to local citizens, as is the modern practice) and generally contained a list of towns and cities the document holder was permitted to enter or pass through. On the whole, documents were not required for travel to sea ports, which were considered open trading points, but documents were required to travel inland from sea ports.
King Henry V of England is credited with having invented what some consider the first passport in the modern sense, as a means of helping his subjects prove who they were in foreign lands. The earliest reference to these documents is found in a 1414 Act of Parliament. In 1540, granting travel documents in England became a role of the Privy Council of England, and it was around this time that the term “passport” was used. In 1794, issuing British passports became the job of the Office of the Secretary of State. The 1548 Imperial Diet of Augsburg required the public to hold imperial documents for travel, at the risk of permanent exile.
A rapid expansion of railway infrastructure and wealth in Europe beginning in the mid-nineteenth century led to large increases in the volume of international travel and a consequent unique dilution of the passport system for approximately thirty years prior to World War I. The speed of trains, as well as the number of passengers that crossed multiple borders, made enforcement of passport laws difficult. The general reaction was the relaxation of passport requirements. In the later part of the nineteenth century and up to World War I, passports were not required, on the whole, for travel within Europe, and crossing a border was a relatively straightforward procedure. Consequently, comparatively few people held passports.
During World War I, European governments introduced border passport requirements for security reasons, and to control the emigration of people with useful skills. These controls remained in place after the war, becoming a standard, though controversial, procedure. British tourists of the 1920s complained, especially about attached photographs and physical descriptions, which they considered led to a “nasty dehumanization”.
In 1920, the League of Nations held a conference on passports, the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets. Passport guidelines and a general booklet design resulted from the conference, which was followed up by conferences in 1926 and 1927.
While the United Nations held a travel conference in 1963, no passport guidelines resulted from it. Passport standardization came about in 1980, under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO standards include those for machine-readable passports. Such passports have an area where some of the information otherwise written in textual form is written as strings of alphanumeric characters, printed in a manner suitable for optical character recognition. This enables border controllers and other law enforcement agents to process these passports more quickly, without having to input the information manually into a computer.
ICAO publishes Doc 9303 Machine Readable Travel Documents, the technical standard for machine-readable passports. A more recent standard is for biometric passports. These contain biometrics to authenticate the identity of travellers. The passport’s critical information is stored on a tiny RFID computer chip, much like information stored on smartcards. Like some smartcards, the passport booklet design calls for an embedded contactless chip that is able to hold digital signature data to ensure the integrity of the passport and the biometric data.