In this new series of articles, Tom Topol—passport expert, collector, and author of Let Pass or Die—chronicles the fascinating history of the U.S. Passport. We kick off the series with Tom’s description of the creation and early milestones of the American passport.

The U.S. passport is a symbol of the country’s sovereignty and an embodiment of its diplomatic power. The origins of the passport can be traced back to the early days of the American Republic when the country was still establishing its place in the world and defining its foreign policy. At this time, the U.S. Department of State was created to conduct foreign affairs and safeguard the interests of American citizens abroad.

Examples of the U.S. Passport

The first Secretary of State, John Jay, saw the need for a systematic approach to issuing travel documents and, in 1796, the U.S. Passport was born. Over the next few decades, the U.S. Passport evolved and grew in importance.

During the Civil War, the passport became a key tool in the Union’s efforts to assert its authority abroad, and as the United States emerged as a world power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the passport took on even greater significance as a symbol of American citizenship.

In the decades that followed, the U.S. passport became an essential tool for American citizens traveling abroad, and it continues to play a vital role in U.S. diplomacy and foreign affairs today. Through its long history, the U.S. passport has come to represent the American ideals of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and it remains a symbol of American identity and purpose in a rapidly changing world.

Milestones of the U.S. Passport
The journey towards the establishment of the U.S. passport system can be traced back to the colonial era, marked by various significant events. Here are some of the most notable milestones in the history of U.S. passports:

  • Requirement of a Travel Pass: In 1756, British authorities required a travel pass for movement between provinces, now known as states.
  • The Issuance of the First Known Passport: On July 19, 1773, one of the first known passports was issued in the American colonies under British authority. The passport was written by Jonathan Trumbull, the Governor of the English colony of Connecticut in New England.
  • The Role of the U.S. Consuls: In 1777, U.S. consuls abroad began regularly issuing passports as part of their duties, since the first legation was established in France.
  • The Responsibilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs: The Continental Congress gave the Department of Foreign Affairs the responsibility of issuing passports in the name of the United States in 1782.

These milestones highlight the evolution of the U.S. passport system, from its humble beginnings as a means of verifying identity for travel to its current status as a globally recognized document of identity and citizenship.

Introduction of Physical Descriptions: In 1790, the first known U.S. passport was issued overseas that contained a description of the bearer, including age and height. This marked the beginning of a more comprehensive and standardized approach to passport issuance.

Legal Protection for Passports: In 1790, Congress passed a law that provided punishment for the violation of any “safe-conduct or passport duly obtained and issued under the authority of the United States.” This legislation ensured that U.S. passports would be recognized and respected both domestically and abroad.

Up next

In the next article in this series, you will learn about an unusual passport issued by President George Washington and the first passport found in the records of the passport division.


The American Passport – Its History 1898, Washington Government Printing Office
The United States passport: past, present, future 1976 –U.S. Dept. of State – Passport Office
The Passport In America – The history of a document, Craig Robertson, Oxford University Press Inc., 2010

U.S. Diplomacy & Passport History – A guideline for passport collectors by Tom Topol

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Tom Topol is a renowned passport expert, author, and editor of . He consults with museums, foundations, media, and collectors globally, offering expertise on passport history, current passport topics, border security, biometrics, and travel. He provides expert writing services and can be reached through his website, which features a comprehensive reference list.

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