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. So far the series has covered the earliest origins of the U.S. passport and significant events in the 1790’s-early 1800’s. Here the author covers more milestones in the continuing evolution of the document, such as the first special passport, the introduction of physical descriptions of the bearer, and defining a passport policy. 

Milestones of the U.S. Passport

  • In 1819, the first “special passport” was issued for a bearer (Courier) of dispatches under John Quincy Adams’ leadership.

Special US passport 1886, Leopold Morse, Member of the House of Representatives

  • During the 1820s, the physical description of the passport bearer was presented as a list of features on the left side of the passport, adding an extra layer of security to the document.
  • Later, in 1833, the State Department underwent restructuring, resulting in the Translating and Miscellaneous Bureau taking over the responsibility of issuing passports, issuing approximately one thousand passports annually.
  • However, in 1835, the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Urtetiqui v. D’Arcy (34 U.S. [9 Pet.] 692), ruled that a passport only provided prima facie evidence of citizenship, highlighting the need for further standardization in passport issuance.
  • In 1838, responsibility for issuing passports was transferred to the Home Bureau of the State Department, and by 1845, the first known circular regarding the passport application process had been issued. In 1846, a second circular clarified the specific documents required to be submitted as evidence of personal identity and citizenship.
  • In 1847, in an attempt to standardize passport policy, the Secretary of State noted that free African Americans were issued a special certificate, not a regular passport.
  • In 1850, bearer’s age and height became officially required on all passports.
  • The first law that clarified passport policy was passed by Congress in 1856. It specified that passports could only be issued to citizens, and it gave the Secretary of State the sole authority to issue passports. The law also introduced the first passport fee of $1 for passports issued abroad (11 Stat. 60, sec. 23, Rev. Stat. 4075).
  • Furthermore, on August 18th, 1856, Congress authorized the Secretary of State and their duly appointed representatives the sole authority to grant and issue passports.

These events in the history of passports have laid the foundation for passport issuance and provided the necessary framework to ensure the security and integrity of these essential travel documents.

  • Beginning in August of 1861, strict protocols were implemented for the arrival and departure of individuals at seaports throughout the United States. These regulations mandated the submission of valid passports as a means of verifying one’s identity and citizenship. The impetus for these measures was the eruption of the Civil War, which necessitated enhanced scrutiny of individuals entering or leaving the country. Furthermore, as a means of further verifying an individual’s allegiance to the United States, the State Department issued a new policy requiring all passport applicants to furnish an additional form of proof in the form of an oath of allegiance. This policy remained in effect for over a century, until it was finally abolished in 1973.

Up next: In the next article in this series, you’ll learn more about the Oath of allegiance on passports, the introduction of a $3 passport fee, and more.


The American Passport – Its History 1898, Washington Government Printing Office
The United States passport: past, present, future 1976 –US 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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