A passport is a personal identification document for travel issued by governments.
Passports are usually complemented by visas, which are issued by the country the traveller intends to visit (through an embassy or consulate) and usually pasted or stamped onto one of the passport pages. Electronic travel authorities are increasingly being used instead. Neither a valid passport nor visa, however, guarantee entry into another country.
Within your home country a passport can also be used as identification eg, when opening a bank account.
The first convention on passports was when, in 1920, the League of Nations decided that all passports contain information in French, being the diplomatic language of that era. Today all passports contain information in at least English and French, as well as the official language(s) of the issuing nation (if not English or French).
The cover page includes the word "passport" and the name of the issuing country in the native language(s) of the issuing country(and possibly a second language, such as English); some sort of national symbol; and special, universal symbol if it is biometric. Additionally, all EU member states have "European Union" (perhaps in another language) above the name of the issuing country.
The information page of the passport records basic information about the passport: its bearer's surname, given names, photo and date and place of birth, validity period, issuing authority, place of issue and passport number, and the dates the passport was issued and will expire. Most passports also contain a written request for safe passage and assistance to the bearer in the event of an emergency. Most passports issued in recent years have a machine-readable strip at the bottom of the page to expedite encoding at the relevant stations (see the relevant section below).
In some countries, the next pages are for amendments where the bearer country's issuing may place travel restrictions, change conditions for travel abroad, or amend the period of validity. In addition, pages may be included which provide helpful legal and practical information for the bearer. For instance a US passport contains 6 pages regarding websites and contacts for various reasons (travel restrictions, treasury restrictions on imports, paying taxes while in a foreign country, registering your stay in a foreign country), common sense subjects (don't be a target, be mindful of security threats, ways to lose citizenship), and important information (loss, theft, destruction, alteration, or mutilation of the passport, what to do in a natural disaster or catastrophic event, etc.).
Most of the passport pages are allotted for visas where visas coming from different embassies or consulates are pasted. Stamps from passport control officers of both the bearer's home country and countries visited revealing the history of entry and exit of those countries are also found on these pages.
Some countries, such as the US, allow the addition of extra pages to passports. Some countries require two blank pages in your passport before you enter the country. If you are running low on blank pages, contact your nearest passport office, embassy, or consulate and they should be able to add extra pages for free or a fee depending on the issuing country.
Other countries, such as Canada, can issue a special passport with 48 pages instead of the usual 24. for frequent travellers. Canada does not allow extra pages to be added later, so this is definitely worth doing if you expect to travel a lot.
Some countries may issue a new passport "cross-linked" (or even physically bound) to the old one. The old one must have a blank page for the authority to endorse a cross-link. This is useful not only when a passport is running low on blank pages, but also in cases where the visa outlasts the passport that contains it.
It can be possible for a person to hold multiple passports from a single country at the same time, although not all countries allow this and even for those countries where it is allowed, it is something of a rarity. Not everyone, including some immigration officials in more remote places, knows that it is both possible and legal to have 2 or more passports. If you are off the beaten tracks, it is advisable to only show the passports that are needed for that particular border, as multiple forms of the same ID can look suspicious.
Instances where 2nd (or even 3rd) passports can be issued include:
- If there is little or no space left for new visas, but the current passport has valid visas that are still needed. In this case, both passports would need to be valid simultaneously.
- If you need to submit your passport to two or more embassies at the same time for visas.
- A representative of a national government (head of state, minister of government, ambassador or high commissioner) may be issued a diplomatic or official passport with a cover in a different colour from the country's standard individual passport. If not travelling on official government business, the standard passport is used.
- Some countries, such as Libya and Iran amongst others, will not allow entry to people whose passports show evidence of travel to Israel, so a new passport will be necessary for travel to those countries in this case. See the Israel article for more information.
Types of passports issued
Regular (or tourist) passport
This is the most common type of passport issued to citizens for general international travel for both tourism and business.
As the name implies, this passport is typically issued to diplomats as well as high-level government officials. In some cases, bearers of these passports will have different visa requirements from regular passport bearers.
This type of passport is generally issued to government employees for work-related travel. These are often treated like diplomatic passports.
In some countries (e.g. Russia) a local passport is for citizen's domestic use only; for international travel a regular (tourist) passport should be issued. An internal passport often serves to prevent the flow of persons from one region of a country to another, this is often implemented to prevent residents of a volatile region from spreading their conflict to another region.
Many Americans cross the Canadian border daily and new requirements require passports to travel to all nations, including Canada and Mexico. The passport card has the same status as the passport book, but in card form for the convenience of frequent border crossing and is only valid for land and sea travel between the United States and Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean (sea travel only).
If you live in the US states of Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Washington you can also apply for an enhanced driver's license (EDL). From a US standpoint an EDL is functionally the same as a passport card and is routinely accepted for re-entry into the United States by land or sea. However, Canadian authorities do not regard an EDL as proof of nationality, only proof of identity, making an EDL unacceptable for entry into Canada unless presented with a birth certificate or another proof of citizenship.
Technology and security
Over the years, the way passports are produced have changed. Passports where the front pages are handwritten still exist although they are being phased out due to security concerns.
Increasingly in the 1990s, machine-readable passports have been introduced where the personal data page is automated. That information is also encoded into two strips at the bottom of the page. This helps speed-up lines at most passport control stations as the officers don't need to type in most of the entries in their respective fields manually in the computers.
Most nations have implemented biometric passports - containing an RFID (radio frequency identification device) chip which contains (depending on issuing country) an electronic recording of passport data, a photograph, and/or fingerprints. Basically, an RFID station issues a signal, and the RFID chip responds with some or all of its data. They are highly useful for customs and immigration officials to quickly and better identify you.
However, these chips can be read by others as well; the equipment typically has a range of about a meter and it is moderately priced, widely available and easily concealed. This creates several security problems:
- tracking by intrusive governments
- tracking by merchants or con artists who target certain nationals
- identity theft where the thief starts with all the information on your passport
If concerned, you might:
- Inquire of the issuer as to the RFID security measures. Some passports, e.g. Swiss ones, don't respond to any signals when closed.
- Do Internet research to understand the issues.
- Choose to use a passport wallet that confines the RFID signals until you deliberately remove your passport for inspection by officials. Such wallets are available at moderate cost from better travel accessory merchants. Many of the "geek" clothing sites on the web also have them.
Where/How to apply
Your home country's passport issuing authority, normally under its ministry of foreign affairs (the State Department for the U.S.) usually processes passport applications, and applicants may go to their nearest representative or satellite office.
- In some countries, applications can be initiated on-line.
- In some countries, Post Offices have application forms and instructions.
- If you are a resident alien of another country, you can go to your home country's embassy or consulate to apply.
To obtain your first passport, you will have to provide documentation with your application proving your claim to citizenship. Once you have a passport, almost regardless of when issued, it can often be effectively used to substantiate your identity as you apply for a new one. Usually, each application must be accompanied by one or more recent, clear, head-and-shoulders colour photos of a required size for mounting and embossing in the finished document by the passport issuing centre.
What if I lose it while travelling?
Some people have experienced the nightmare of losing their passport. If this happens, take a deep breath and contact your embassy or consulate immediately to begin the replacement process. It can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to get a new passport in a foreign country, depending on your citizenship and your location.
Some countries offer "emergency passports" or "emergency travel documents" if you can convince them that you can't wait out the normal turnaround time. These documents usually have a very short term validity, typically only being good for one journey to your home country, although some may be valid longer. They take much less time to obtain than a full-blown replacement passport, often just hours. The process can be expedited by having a copy of the original, as discussed below. A police report is useful and may even be required by your embassy/consulate, even if there was no crime involved. Don't forget to bring a couple of passport photos.
Seasoned travellers often carry multiple machine or photocopies of their passport (and other important documents, e.g., visas) when abroad. You should keep copies in locations separate from the originals, e.g., folded together in your wallet, in your luggage, or even scanned into a computer.
- This is especially useful when travelling in areas where risk of loss or theft is high. Lacking an original, a copy could save you from problems with local authorities by quickly showing them something that indicates you are authorized to be there...before they arrest you.
- Copies also may make a replacement passport easier to obtain through your embassy or consulate so you can return home. You should also make/get a copy of any entry visa required to enter a country.
Use original passports when demanded by authorities, e.g., checking in for a flight, at immigration as you reach another country, for cruise ship embarkation processing.
- If afoot, with your passport elsewhere (e.g., at your hotel), a copy and government-issued photo identification are decent substitutes...giving authorities reason to check your hotel before official action.
- If cruising, unless the ship's staff states that passports are necessary for a port visit, leave them in your cabin's safe and take the copies and ID instead.
Copies are best done in color, and at least of the primary page(s) of each original. Two adjacent pages of two passports can often fit on a single sheet of copy paper.
Giving your passport to others
In some countries, such as China, it may be necessary for your long term residence or immigration status to be registered with the local police. It is advisable to give your passport to a trusted agent if you will not do this in person.
Some countries require hotels to keep photocopies of your passport. If you don't trust hotel staff with your passport, e.g. if staff have to leave the hotel premises to make a copy, you can provide your own. In any case, you should never surrender your passport as a security or guarantee under any circumstances, except as required by law.
In practical terms, the last date when you can use a passport is well before the expiration date. As you start international travel, most transport companies (e.g., airlines, cruise lines) will demand that your passport have sufficient time before it expires, which is typically six months. They are helping to ensure that you will meet immigration requirements of the countries you'll visit. You may have to stay longer than planned, e.g., due to serious injury or illness. Overstaying your visa or holding an expired passport could be serious.
If your passport does not have sufficient time before expiring then you may be denied boarding or entry into a foreign country.
Passports from many countries (Australia, EU nations, US) remain valid for 10 years. Others allow only five years. For some countries, such as Canada, it depends on the passport type; older passports were only good for five years but the new RFID ones are good for ten. In many countries the period of validity depends on age; even if adults get ten-year passports, children may get only five.
All passports will eventually expire, and depending on your country it can take as little as one day to four months or longer to issue a new passport.
Citizens of many countries may not have legal or constitutional rights to be issued a passport by their country of citizenship. This means the citizen may be required to surrender their passport to local authorities at certain times such as when they are subject to criminal investigation. Moreover, some passports issued by some countries may expire earlier than usual, and this may indicate that the holder is nearing the required age for military conscription.
In some cases, countries with poor or no diplomatic relations with another country may bar the bearers of the other country's passport (or merely having stamps of that other country) from seeking entry.
Israeli passport holders and sometimes those with just an Israeli entry/exit stamp in their passport will face restrictions and possibly denied entry to many Arab or Muslim states. Similarly, entry into Israel with a passport from an Arab or Muslim state (or stamps from them) can cause long delays and possibly denied entry. Visitors to Israel can ask the immigration officials not to stamp their passport, but place a stamp on a separate piece of paper. This procedure is at the discretion of the immigration officer. Beware, though, that if you cross overland from Egypt or Jordan to Israel, the exit stamps from those countries could also result in your being barred from some Arab or Muslim countries.
U.S. citizens who do not get special permission from the U.S. State Department to visit Cuba have a similar problem: For a U.S. citizen to spend money in Cuba without permission from the State Department is a punishable crime, and any visit is presumed to involve expenditures of money. Cuban authorities, too, will stamp a separate piece of paper, if so requested. However, multiple entry stamps to third countries like Mexico could be a red flag.
- In many countries, you are legally required to use the passport you used to enter the country to exit from it. In most, it may cause practical difficulties, such as being accused of overstaying, if you don't.
- In some countries, such as Australia, South Africa and the US, you are legally required to use that country's passport to enter and exit the country if you are a citizen of it, even if you concurrently hold multiple citizenships.
- Some countries do not recognize multiple citizenship, therefore being found in possession of another country's passport may cause you legal problems. Penalties could include stripping you of the citizenship of the country that you are in. You must also ensure that you enter the country with the passport of that country or risk being accused of entering illegally.
- Multiple citizenship does not exempt you from legal responsibilities when inside one of the countries of your nationalities. It is very unlikely that consular assistance from one of your other countries will be provided when you need help.
Exit visa or stamp
Some countries, notably from the former Soviet Union, require the passports of their citizens to have an exit visa or stamp for it to be valid for international travel. Russia itself has abolished this requirement, however some other countries in the CIS retain it. Uzbek citizens, for example, still require the exit visa. The exit visa is normally valid for a short period compared with the passport - 2 years for Uzbekistan. Travelling with a passport that has an expired exit visa is not normally a problem outside the CIS. However, a citizen of a CIS country that requires it will have problems leaving another CIS state. For example, a citizen of Uzbekistan with an expired exit stamp who travels to Russia will only be able to leave Russia to go to Uzbekistan.
The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates) require foreigners on certain classes of visas to obtain exit visas in order to leave the country. The most notable example is those on work visas, who are required to obtain permission from their employer in order to leave the country.