In this ongoing 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, significant events in the 1790’s-early 1800’s and in the years leading up to the Civil War and up to the 20th Century. Here the author tells the story of the passport during the early 20th Century.

As the nation entered the 20th century, a passport bureau was reestablished, and governors of U.S. insular possessions were authorized to issue passports. The passport photo was also introduced. Here, we’ll explore these and other significant milestones of that era.

Milestones of the U.S. Passport

  • In 1902, a Passport Bureau was reinstated, with governors of United States insular possessions being authorized to issue passports to residents. Cuba gained its independence from the United States on May 20, 1902, and passports were likely issued during the period of U.S. sovereignty, although no records are available. Passports were also issued to residents of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii on June 14, 1902.

Territory of Hawaii passport 1920

  • In 1903, U.S passports issued to citizens of Chinese descent included a disclaimer that possession of a passport did not guarantee entry to the United States. However, this disclaimer was removed later on. Additionally, the stamping of the secretary of state’s signature on passports resulted in a facsimile signature being engraved on the plate from which passports were printed.
  • In 1907, The Passport Bureau was renamed the Bureau of Citizenship. A diplomatic agreement was made between the United States and Japanese governments, where the United States would not restrict Japanese immigration if the Japanese government agreed not to issue passports to laborers who want to work in the continental United States. A special passport for immigrants who had declared their intention to become citizens was also authorized, along with a registration certificate that consular officials could give to U.S. citizens living abroad to satisfy the identification demands of foreign authorities.
  • In 1911, a revised version of the Rules Governing Issuing of Passports limited diplomatic and consular authorities to issuing passports only in emergencies. The United States government also abrogated a treaty with Russia over Russian refusal to visa the U.S. passports of Jewish citizens.
  • Following the outbreak of war in Europe in November 1914, the State Department announced that all citizens going abroad “should” carry passports. On December 21 of that year, photographs became officially required on passports. The period of validity of a passport was reduced from two years to six months in 1915, and passport applications were changed to include more detailed information such as the date and place of departure and the purpose of the visit.
  • 1917: After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the State Department required “proof of necessity” in all passport applications, though it was more strictly enforced for Europe. The Departments of State and Labor issued a Joint Order requiring all aliens who intended to enter U.S. territory to have a visa issued by a U.S. consul. The Bureau of Citizenship was renamed the Division of Passport Control, but the attorney general ruled that the Executive did not have authority to control the departure of aliens, nor the departure and entry of U.S. citizens.
  • On January 3rd, 1918, a revised passport was introduced with enhanced security features to prevent fraudulent alteration and duplication. The passport, still a single sheet of paper albeit smaller than before, was now folded and glued into a soft, beige-colored cover made of watermarked paper.
  • In 1918 and beyond, the Passport Control Act of May 22nd granted the President of the United States the authority to control the travel of citizens and others to and from the country during wartime. An executive order issued by President Wilson on August 8th established regulations governing departure and entry into the United States through passports and visas. The State Department also opened a passport agency in San Francisco, with a Visa Division established shortly thereafter.
  • In 1920, the passport fee was raised to $10, with a two-year period of validity. The authority to issue passports to immigrants who had declared their intention to become citizens was repealed, and the fee for a visa was increased to $10, leading many countries to reciprocate with increased visa fees for U.S. citizens. In the same year, the League of Nations’ Organization for Communication and Transit held a conference aimed at simplifying international passport requirements introduced by individual nations during the war.
  • On February 17th, 1920, the governor of Hawaii was granted the authority to issue, renew, and amend U.S. passports.
  • In March 1921, Congress removed wartime restrictions for citizens entering and leaving the country but retained them for noncitizens. An immigration act introduced a national quota system but did not empower consuls to issue or refuse visas based on quotas. Passport agencies were opened in Chicago, Seattle, and New Orleans, and the secretary of state ruled that applicants had to provide a photograph, regardless of religious beliefs.
  • Finally, on January 7th, 1922, the Secretary of State conferred the authority to issue foreign service passports upon the Governor of the Virgin Islands.

Up next: The next installation in this series will cover passport rules for married women, the opening of the Boston passport agency, and the introduction of a hardcover passport.


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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