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Things You Didn't Know About U.S. Passports

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American consular officials issued the first passports in the late 1700s. The single sheet of paper was valid for just a few months — a far cry from the current 28-page blue book that’s issued for 10 full years. These days, a passport has become one of the most important documents you’ll ever own, opening up a world of adventures and giving travelers peace of mind on their journeys. But how much do you really know about this critical travel document? Here are six interesting facts you might not know about U.S. passports.

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More Than 143 Million Passports Were in Circulation as of 2020

A view of a plane isle with seated passengers.
Credit: Diy13/ iStock

There were 143,116,633 passports in circulation in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of State. A small proportion of those were second passports, but that accounts for more than 40% of the U.S. population of 331 million. However, that hasn’t always been the case: In 1989, just 7,261,711 million U.S. passports existed for a population of approximately 245 million, and as recently as 20 years ago, that number still remained stubbornly below 50 million passports.

Despite the significant increase in passport holders, the U.S. figure still falls short of the percentage in many other countries. For example, the Australian government reported that 4,614,941 Australians held a passport in 2019, equivalent to 57% of the population. According to the 2011 census (the most recent data available), just 15% of the 63 million people living in the U.K. did not have a passport. One of them was the Queen, who doesn’t need one anyway because it is she who issues them.

Several factors might explain the discrepancies. Thanks to the rapid growth of budget airlines, travel within Europe can be extraordinarily cheap, but a passport is needed to access those bargain international flights. In contrast, to visit many foreign destinations from the U.S. requires a long and relatively expensive flight. There are also significant differences in climate, topography, and culture making international travel enticing to many foreign nationals, while in the U.S. there’s already a great deal of variety within its borders. Paid holiday entitlements also vary considerably between countries, as does the culture and tradition of gap year travel.

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U.S. Passport Holders Can Travel to 185 Countries Without Having to Arrange a Visa

A woman holds a passport while looking out at a grounded plane.
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The strength of a nation’s passport can be measured in the number of countries its holders are entitled to enter under normal circumstances — either visa-free or by purchasing a visa on arrival (and not having to arrange one in advance). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) supplies information for what’s known as the Henley Passport Index. In the latest published data, the U.S. passport allows access to 185 countries during normal circumstances. That ranks No. 7 among all countries and is on par with the U.K. and Switzerland.

Japan tops the 2021 chart with 191 countries, closely followed by Singapore with 190 and South Korea and Germany at 189. As countries alter their entry requirements, the rankings change; the U.S. most recently took first place in 2014.

4

You Don’t Always Need a Passport to Travel Overseas

View of a plane wing in the air from the window seat.
Credit: Chalabala/ iStock

Of course, there are some destinations for which you don’t need a passport at all, as long as you are a U.S. citizen. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1917, so you won’t need a passport to visit (just a valid photo ID together with your plane or ship boarding pass). And as long as you get there via Hawaii and Guam, you can travel as far as the Northern Marianas Islands in Micronesia without a passport. However, Guam itself requires visiting U.S. citizens to hold a passport, though in exceptional circumstances its authorities will accept other forms of valid photo ID and proof of citizenship. U.S. citizens will also need a passport for American Samoa.

U.S. citizens traveling to places like the Bahamas on what’s known as a closed-loop cruise can use any document listed under the terms of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. However, if unforeseen circumstances force return travel by air, a passport would be necessary, so it’s wise to have one. Likewise, a U.S. Passport Card (different from a regular passport book) will get you through a land or sea border with Mexico, Canada, parts of the Caribbean and Bermuda, but not onto a plane flying internationally.

3

The Cover Color Is the World’s Most Common, But It Hasn’t Always Been Blue

Two passports and airline boarding pass on piece of luggage.
Credit: DNY59/ iStock

According to the Passport Index from Arton Capital, the world’s passports can be grouped into shades of just four colors: red, blue, green, and black. Blue, the current choice of the U.S. government, is the most popular, preferred by 83 nations. Red is second on the list with 65 countries, followed by green and black with 44 and seven countries, respectively.

Passport cover colors don’t always stay the same, either: The U.S. passport has actually been all four at some point in its history. In his book The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document author Martin Lloyd notes that America’s first modern-style passport, issued starting in 1926, was red. Red was replaced by green from 1941 to 1976, when today’s blue option was introduced to match the flag, in honor of the country’s bicentennial celebrations. There are a few exceptions: Diplomats use black passports, and anyone traveling without diplomatic status but who is on government business uses red documents.

2

You Can’t Use Just Any Old Photograph

Empty studio with photography lighting.
Credit: Rawpixel/ iStock

Passport photos have to meet a long list of conditions today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early days of passports, there were few restrictions on the photograph you could use in a passport. People posed with family members and pets, smoked cigarettes, or played musical instruments. Today’s photos must be recent, taken in the last six months, and set against a plain white or off-white background. If you wear glasses, you must remove them unless you can prove you have a medical exemption. The filters and selfies preferred on social media aren’t allowed, either.

The list doesn’t end there: Don’t even think about wearing a uniform, or camouflage gear. Ditch the hat, unless it’s worn because of your religion, and lose your headphones. Jewelry and piercings are considered acceptable, so long as they don’t obscure your facial features, as are permanent tattoos. If your physical appearance changes significantly, it’s likely you’ll need a new replacement passport.

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The Artwork in the Current U.S. Passport Protects Against Forgery

The inside of a U.S. passport.
Credit: ConvertKit/ Unsplash

A 2016 makeover of the U.S. passport moved the machine-readable chip, which contains biometric data about the holder, inside polycarbonate paper to make it more secure. The practice of adding extra pages was banned. Inks, too, got cleverer — depending on the angle you view it, the word “U.S.A.” in the current passport looks green or gold. Even the hot foil stamping on the cover is a feature which aims to make forgery trickier.

The passport’s artwork is also used to frustrate potential forgers. The current passport design, dubbed “American Icon,” features a wide range of patriotic images including the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, bison, bears, bald eagles, and longhorn cattle. The ideals and ethos of a nation are summed up through excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and rousing quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., Anna Julia Cooper, Henry Ward Beecher, and former presidents.

For really mind-blowing passport artwork, however, take a look at some of the passports issued by the Nordic nations. Shining Norway’s passport under a UV light, reveals a hidden image of the Northern Lights. Finnish passports act like flicker-books: Flip the passport pages quickly enough and the pictures create a moving image of a moose. Staying one step ahead of forgers is a constant battle, and another, more advanced U.S. passport redesign may soon be in the works.

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