The 20th Century was a time of rapid change and progress in the U.S., and advancements in passport security and policy were no exception. Read on to learn about this era in U.S. passport history from Tom Topol, passport expert, collector, and author of Let Pass or Die.  

Milestones of the U.S. Passport

In the early 20th century, the United States State Department initiated a series of progressive passport policies.

  • In 1925: Married women were granted the option of having their maiden name followed by the phrase “wife of” on their passport.
  • 1926: A hard-covered booklet-type passport was issued, printed on blue-tinted safety paper with ink sensitive to water and light. The advent of the booklet-type passport saw a separate book printed for each agency, insular possession, and the Foreign Service. That same year, the League of Nations held its second passport conference, which included attempts to establish a standard passport format and a $2 visa fee.

The State Department issued its first modern booklet-form passport that same year, with the Act of July 3, 1926, repealing all previous passport laws. The Division of Passport Control was renamed the Passport Division, and the Secretary of State was authorized to designate diplomatic and consular officials to issue passports. In an effort to enhance passport security, the State Department began to use a machine to perforate a legend across the lower part of the photograph after it was attached to the passport. An electrically operated seal press and legend machine were also developed for passport use. 

Rare U.S. Philippines Island Passport, Type 1929, with the new hard cover, introduced in 1926.          

  • In the 1930s: The fee for a passport was reduced from $9 to $5, and passports could be renewed for periods of two years, with a final expiration date not more than six years from the original issue date.
  • 1932: A passport was issued with a new design to prevent fraud. Knots of the thread binding the passport together were placed inside the cover to prevent them from being untied, and the inside cover sheet was printed on safety paper and glued directly to the cloth cover.

The mid-20th Century saw continued evolution of the U.S. Passport and its security features as well as the expansion of passport offices and policies.

  • In 1956: The 14 categories of passports in use were consolidated into five categories, and glue pots and brushes were replaced by a gluing machine. A machine was also introduced to mechanically record all transactions involving funds received with passport applications, while the first specially designed electric typewriter was introduced to expedite the processing of descriptive information in the passport document.
  • 1955: The passport application was revised from a legal-sized form to a letter-sized 4-page form.
  • 1957: Routine mailing of passports by registered mail was discontinued, resulting in considerable savings in postage costs.
  • 1958: The Passport Office became the first office in the U.S. government to use color photographs for identification purposes. Tape-driven automatic passport writing machines were installed the same year to increase the speed of processing the passport document and reduce the incidents of error.
  • Starting in 1959: Passports included a block requesting the name and address of a person to be notified in case of emergency. In the same year, the initial validity of the passport was changed from two to three years.
  • In 1961: A new series of passports were introduced that implemented 16 major physical improvements, including covers made of Lexide to withstand wear and tear and resist stains. The colors of the covers were changed to indicate the three categories: blue for regular, maroon for official, and black for diplomatic. A new numbering system was adopted. The passport number was perforated though the front cover and the first 10 pages as a security measure. The descriptive data page and photograph pages were placed face-to-face to enable immigration officials to identify the traveler without turning pages. The “occupation” block was deleted since it was not pertinent to the citizenship and identity of the bearer.

Up next: Tom Topol will wrap up this series by recounting the creation of a new perforated passport numbering system, a new validity period, a new message from the Secretary of State and—last but not least—the launch of the U.S. Next Generation 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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