The history of the passport

What does your passport mean to you? It might represent your nationality or your ability to live and work in a certain country.

Perhaps it reminds you of having your passport photo taken - a traumatic experience even for the most photogenic - or of the frequently infuriating bureaucracy of visas and entry requirements that overseas travel can entail. Some see the sheer fact of owning a passport as a sign of a certain worldly sophistication - I'm sure I did when, aged 10, I first got mine - sometimes citing the false assertion that only 10 per cent of citizens of the US have a passport (the figure is more than one-third these days, compared to about 50 per cent of Australians).

There's certainly a romance attached to passports that few other official documents can match. That's why we use it as a catch-all term for a thing which confers admission or acceptance, and why the word has been co-opted by everyone from the makers of Cash Passport, a travel money card, to Disneyland, which sells a Premium Annual Passport providing year-round access to its theme parks for a princely $US700 ($771). It's also why, as a child, I so enjoyed leafing through the exotic stamps that filled the pages of my dad's passport, evidence of his frequent and wide-ranging overseas trips.

So perhaps you see your passport as a neat little symbol for the joys and annoyances of travel, a blue cloth-bound token of your freedom to explore the world and get to know foreign countries and cultures.

There is an irony, then, that when the modern passport system was established in the aftermath of World War I, it was criticised by some as dehumanising to passport holders and an infringement of civil liberties in its attempts to control the movement of people across borders. Right or wrong, it has enhanced governments' abilities to do the latter.

The first passports took the form of letters of safe conduct, such as the one issued to the biblical figure of Nehemiah in about 450BC for a journey from present-day Iraq to what is now Israel. This is often cited as the world's first passport, and is mentioned in the Old Testament: "Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah."

These letters of safe conduct continued to be issued in Europe in medieval times and we can see their echo in the message in the front of many modern-day passports which requests, on the behalf of some authority (in Australian passports, the Governor-General), that the bearer be allowed to pass freely and be afforded assistance and protection if needed.

King Henry V of England is credited with issuing the first true passport, in the sense it allowed his subjects to prove their identity in foreign lands. These documents are first mentioned in an Act of Parliament in 1414 and later in Shakespeare's history play Henry V, in which the king declares before battle: ". . . he which hath no stomach to this fight, / Let him depart, his passport shall be made".

The word passport is thought to be of French origin, from "passer" (to pass or to go) and "port" (gate or port), so it seems fitting it was in France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, that the concept was popularised. The Sun King is said to have granted personally signed passports to favourites in his court.

In 1793, Britain made passports compulsory, hoping to monitor the movement of people across the English Channel from France, where revolution was in full swing. These documents were not cheap. A passport issued to a Sir John Stepney in 1778 cost six pounds, seven shillings and sixpence, the equivalent of well over $1000 today (for comparison, a standard Australian passport costs $244).

By the 1800s, most countries in Europe were issuing passports and, as today, travellers often required visas to visit other countries. The huge growth in international travel in the 19th century is associated in many minds with the rise of the passport system but in fact the effect was opposite. With so many more people travelling between nations, the system fell into disarray and in 1861 France abolished passports, followed by many other European countries.

At the advent of World War I, European countries began tightening their borders and many reinstated passports.

This was not only a matter of national security and controlling the inbound movement of people: with an eye on their war efforts, governments also had a pressing reason to control the outbound movement of men of fighting age. In 1915, passports were declared mandatory for Australian males of military age and from the following year everyone aged 15 or older was required to have a passport to enter or leave Australia.

Following the war, the League of Nations held a conference in Paris to agree on standards for passports issued by its member states and, by the end of the 1920s, passports had become entrenched. In Australia, home affairs minister Arthur Blakeley announced in late 1929 that the passport system was officially here to stay.

The Australian Government started issuing passports following Federation in 1901, though the first Federal passport regulations were not introduced until 1912. As the Australian Passport Office points out on its website, the history of our passports reflects the evolution of Australian society, influenced by our emerging national identity, multicultural community and geopolitics. "Changes to the passport and its underpinning legislation also reflected the evolution in attitudes to gender, families and indigenous Australians," it says.

For example, the office records a Department of Interior memo from 1934 which describes how passports had been refused to a single woman wanting, scandalously, to accompany a man abroad and to another seeking to leave the country to marry against the wishes of her parents. It wasn't until 1983 that an Australian woman no longer officially required her husband's permission to be issued a passport.

Furthermore, until 1967 Australian passports bore the words "British Passport" on the cover, the change suggestive of the gradual shift in our relationship to the "mother country". And, in more recent years, passports have allowed intersex and transgender people to choose a third "X" gender option or to record the gender with which they identify without having undergone reassignment surgery.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation has been responsible for setting international passport standards since 1947 but passport standardisation didn't come about until the 1980s, when machine- readable versions were introduced to speed up processing.

Various improvements in security have been made since then, particularly following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. Australia was early to adopt biometric passports, or epassports, which incorporate a computer chip containing personal information to verify the identity of the holder. These passports have been controversial in some quarters, with some opponents arguing they are vulnerable to security breaches and fraud, and, in an echo of critics of the passport system more than a century ago, impinge on civil liberties.

With our world becoming ever- less reliant on paper and airport security becoming ever-more high-tech, it seems reasonable to wonder if physical passports have a role to play in the future of travel. It's been suggested we may end up with a kind of laminated identity card with a computer chip, particularly as stamps and physical visas become rarer.

A few years ago, a German company even produced a prototype passport card with a built-in screen to show a 360-degree view of the passport holder. Other mooted possibilities include incorporating additional biometric information, from voice recognition to heart rhythms and body odour. Which, depending on the sweetness of your particular personal scent, might destroy the romance of the passport once and for all.