Passports now and then


By Tom Topol, editor of

Nowadays passports are high-tech documents and standardized by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This organization just updated recently one of their guidelines to make Machine Readable Travel Documents (MRTD) even more secure.

Around the globe and especially just right now in Europe, migration is a huge challenge for many countries. A minority of migrants eventually try to enter their country of desire with altered or forged travel document. So standardisation and security features are necessary. The 9/11 tragedy triggered basically a significant global change on travel & document security.

So how did the passport design and the method of verification of a passport and its bearer has changed in the last 100 years?

For me, passports 100 years ago were art. Why? Well, let’s take a look at this British passport from 1921…

First of all you have this huge passport cover which was then almost the double size of a travel document today. Look at the golden imprint – the Coat of Arms (COA). Impressive, right? The passport number was stamped and the bearers name was written by hand. The cover just stated “PASSPORT”.

Now let’s open this piece of art and we can see that the document is one huge page folded in such a way that we can say we have 16 “pages” for entries (plus two pages of passport regulations), including “description of the bearer” and “photograph of the bearer” plus the same for “the wife of the bearer”.

Yes, 94 years ago ONE passport was good to travel with your wife. Today rules the principle “One person – one passport” and even your new-born would need a passport for travelling. The gentlemen here wasn’t married so we see only his passport picture, nicely with a hat. Impossible today!

The bearer’s signature was already made on a special field in the passport application which was then glued below the picture by the passport office and blind sealed (a security feature then). The same applies for the passport picture which had a rubber and a blind stamp. The passport fee in 1921 was six pence (£2.65 equivalent today) which you can see on the revenue stamps. How much do you pay for your British e-Passport today? Exactly £72.50 for the standard version according HMPO. A passport in 1921 was valid for only two years, nowadays for 10 years.

The gentlemen here was an army officer in the rank of a Major (according the passport description) and he travelled quite a lot as we can see huge and colourful visas & stamps e.g. from Bulgaria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece or Constantinople.

If you travel as European only within Europe you don’t get any more these colourful stamps and visas today. Your travel document with 32 pages will remain most likely empty. The UK passport today is good for visa free travel to 147 countries (Source: Only for the remaining +- 60 countries you would need to apply for a visa where you then might get a more or less colourful visa sticker or stamp with more or less advanced security features as well.

In 1921 you needed a visa for almost any country.

A border officer back then had only a very few characteristics available to verify a passport and its bearer. Which was mostly focused on the passport picture, the signature and the watermark in the paper of the document.

The personal description of forehead, nose, chin, mouth, hair or face were not really good verification characteristic but still there was the height, eye colour and special peculiarities. The working conditions at borders back then were also completely different as the officer was maybe outside at night, during the rain, equipped with poor lightning etc. Nowadays border crossing points are usually well equipped to support the duties of an immigration officer.

Today ePassports are high tech documents, as said in the beginning, not only because of an attractive design which changes in some passports from page to page but mainly because of the complex and multiple security features. Micro printing, holograms, UV features, laminates and watermarks are only a few of the security features. Modern MRTD can include up to 30 such features some only even known by the security printer.

See here the design of the current UK passport with its complex artwork or the Canadian passport which pages literally turn into a fireworks under UV light.

It was once rumoured the next type of the US passport will play the national anthem every time you open its cover, but this seems more a wisecrack as the passport designs of some countries are increasingly given a very “patriotic” touch.

By the way this year - 2015 the passport picture celebrates its 100 years birthday, as in 1915 passport picture were widely introduced. See a nice BBC article on the topic here.

Old passports are truly a kind of artwork for me as they were indeed unique documents compared to the standardized MRTD today and that is the reason why I love passports & their history. My own collection contains 600+ documents, included are historical valuable documents such as an Austrian passport 1848 for a delegate of the Frankfurt National Assembly (the first freely elected German parliament), diplomatic passport 1915 of German Ambassador von Wangenheim who witnessed the Armenian Genocide, the passport of Count Zeppelin or the passport of Arthur Henderson (UK, 1934 Nobel Peace Prize, Secretary of State of the Foreign Office).

His passport is displayed in detail here.

Passport collecting is a most interesting, entertaining and at the same time most educating hobby. It’s about history (political & geographical). You need to have knowledge about the history of a country, its political situation and geographical location at that time (when a passport was issued). You learn a lot about the bearer’s personal history. Why he was travelling to Far East, India or Europe at that time? How he was travelling? Which countries he passed till arrived at the final destination? Remember - just 100 years ago travelling was not that easy as it is today. So it’s also about the history of travelling.

When do YOU start collecting?

Tom Topol is a member of the Ephemera Society in UK & USA and a well-recognized expert on passports & their history with several publications. He does consult collectors, foundations, museums and news media agencies on this topic. A reference list is available online. His website ( is the leading source on the topic. You can follow Tom also at Twitter & Facebook.

 © Copyright 2015 Tom Topol

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