In my day job, I spend a lot of time thinking about passports and visas, especially those that have embedded chips with the document holder’s biometrics – unless the passport was stolen from someone else, in which case the chip WOULDN’T have the document holder’s biometrics.
However, the original purpose of the passport wasn’t to see if you were Osama Bin Laden. He hadn’t been born at the time of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 2:7 English Standard Version (ESV)
7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah…”
This early occurrence emphasizes the main reason for a passport – to protect you when you leave your own country and go to another one.
Now King Artaxerxes didn’t willy-nilly hand out passports to everyone. Most people didn’t travel much, and many of those that did weren’t going to get a passport from the king. (Nehemiah had special access.) So the passport didn’t really take off until a couple of thousand years later.
Not until the reign of King Louis XIV of France did these “letters of request” become popular. The King granted personally signed documents to his court favourites….Within 100 years of Louis XIV’s reign, almost every country in Europe had set up a system to issue passports.
However, by the 19th century, people’s stay-at-home tendencies declined dramatically as rail travel made it easy to travel throughout Europe. So why even bother with passports? Similar sentiments appeared in the United States; passports were required for a brief period in 1861-1862, but then were no longer required.
Then World War I happened. This was a big war that was more terrifying than anything that had occurred previously. (This explains the peace movement of the 1920s; no one ever wanted to go through THAT again – and they didn’t, for about two decades.) Previous wars weren’t so dramatic; during the Napoleonic Wars, England continued to issue its passports in the diplomatic language of French, despite the fact that they were fighting the French at the time. By the middle of World War I, numerous countries, including the United States, set up passport requirements really quickly. The U.S. dropped the passport requirement in 1921, since the “war to end all wars” had already happened. When the next war started in 1941, we re-established the passport requirement, only to drop it again in 1945. By 1952, we required passports for almost every country, and now (since 2009) require it when Americans travel in ANY foreign country.
9/11 obviously affected passports and international travel, introducing the “No Fly List.” But a similar list occurred during the reign of Oliver Cromwell:
[Cromwell] developed an early prototype of the No Fly List by decreeing that no pass be issued to citizens until they promised they would not ‘be aiding, assisting, advising or counselling against the Commonwealth’. The No Sail List lapsed under Charles II…
This emphasizes a secondary function of passports – to keep people from leaving the country. (This is why rich people who are arrested have to surrender their passport before trial.) Yet the original purpose, to protect someone in a foreign country, was still important.
[P]assports were often obtained by U.S. citizens, whether newly naturalized or not, to protect themselves from being detained in other countries or (if naturalized) from their own mother countries. Some European countries were known to draft immigrants visiting their homeland into the military. A passport was used to prove citizenship and protect the traveler.