Why Do You Need a Passport to Travel?

A beach on a tropical island and a photo of a passport.

Hopefully, almost everyone knows what a passport is, and how they are used. Passports are official, government-issued documents that certify the identity and the nationality of the passport holder. We use them to travel to foreign countries, and as permission to re-enter the nation that issued the passport when returning home. But why? How did all this come about? And why do we need a passport to travel?

The history of the passport

The passport was invented in 1414 by King Henry V of England, to provide proof of identity for English people traveling overseas. The word “passport” dates to 1540 and comes from a medieval document that was needed to pass through a gate or “portal” of a city wall—hence the word “pass-port.” But long before this, safe-conduct letters performing the function of a passport were in use. In Biblical times, passports were used by the ancient Greeks and Persians, by the Roman Empire, and by the Han Dynasty of China.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, relatively few people possessed passports. In the lead-up to World War One, passports and border security started becoming more important in Europe, and more and more Europeans started getting passports. By 1920, the modern passport as we know was standardized by the League of Nations. It’s the booklet containing a photograph of the passport holder, with blank pages for visa stamps.

In 1980, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (or ICAO) took over passport standards. New passport features incorporated since then include machine-readable passports, and biometric passports with embedded RFID computer chips. Also, passport photographs changed from black & white to color.

Is it possible to travel without a passport? Yes, it is! But your options are limited, and mostly depend on where you live.

Travel domestically without a passport

Less than half of all Americans hold a passport, which is a small percentage compared to Europeans. But this represents a large increase from the 1980s, when less than 10% of Americans had passports. Why do so few Americans have passports? One reason may be because the United States is so huge that there are plenty of domestic travel opportunities.

In the US, you can travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, by car or by plane, and visit all 50 states (including Hawaii and Alaska) plus Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands—all without a passport. (Obviously, you’ll need a ship or a plane to get to the islands, and you cannot drive to Alaska without a passport to get across Canada.) North America is a big continent, and there’s plenty to see and do even without a passport.

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Travel internationally without a passport: walking and driving

Americans can also visit Canada and Mexico without a passport as long as they are walking or driving. Nevertheless, some form of documentation is still required. Instead of the passport booklet, you might opt to get the wallet-sized passport card, which is cheaper than the booklet. And a few border states offer an “enhanced” driver’s license, or eDL, for driving across the Mexican border or the Canadian border.

There are also trusted traveler programs such as FAST, Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI. These programs can get some frequent travelers pre-approved for faster border crossings back into the United States from certain overseas destinations. For example, FAST is for truck drivers. But it is actually easier to get a passport than it is to qualify for a trusted traveler program. So if you are a traveler, a visitor or a tourist, it is best to have a proper passport booklet.

It’s also important to bear in mind that you cannot fly into Mexico, Canada or the United States without a passport. All air travelers must have a valid passport booklet, regardless of their age or nationality.

Travel internationally without a passport: closed-loop cruises

The best way to visit Canada and Mexico without a passport is to take a closed-loop cruise. Closed-loop cruises are sailings which depart from and return to the same US port, and visit only destinations within the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). WHTI ports of call include the USA, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean islands.

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These cruises are very popular with Americans exactly because so few Americans have passports. All you need is a photo ID, plus proof of US citizenship such as your birth certificate or naturalization certificate. This is a great way to get to visit many excellent North American destinations: hit the beaches of Cancun for spring break, see glaciers calving in Alaska in the summertime, and watch the maple leaves change colors in Quebec in the fall. But check with your cruise line first, because some cruise lines require a passport anyway, even for closed-loop cruises.

As you can see, there are plenty of top-notch travel destinations available to Americans who choose not to hold a passport. But there are plenty more destinations which Americans will not have a chance to visit because passports are required: Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia.

The advantages of having a passport

The passport is the only universally recognized government-issued photo ID which provides proof of both identity and nationality. It can come in handy should you ever need to provide two forms of valid photo ID but your driver’s license has expired. It’s certainly easier to carry than a driver’s license AND your birth certificate! Passports are accepted by the TSA as photo ID for domestic flights, so it can also help you when you fly domestically.

But mostly you have a passport to be prepared for international travel around the world. What if a family member retires to Belize or Honduras, and you suddenly decide to visit? It can take up to 18 weeks to get a new passport. 

Passport Photo Online

Passport Photo Online  is a simple and easy-to-use online app that enables you to prepare perfect biometric photographs for your US passport application using just your smartphone. Simply slide your photo into our app, and we take care of making sure that it meets US government specifications. We can even replace the background with a plain white background for you, if necessary.

Don’t let your application get put on hold because your photographs were not acceptable—trust the experts to make you look good. We immediately email the finished photos to you in a JPEG file, which you can get printed for 35¢ at Target. This is an excellent way to save yourself some time and money!

MUST-SEE TIPS BEFORE TAKING A PASSPORT PHOTO:

Enjoy your travels!

The US passport is one of the strongest passports in the world: you can visit 185 different countries and travel destinations without needing to get a visa in advance. (Of course, due to the COVID pandemic, additional restrictions may apply. Always check local conditions before traveling.)

Once you receive your passport, the world is your oyster. Take a photo safari in Tanzania. Visit Machu Picchu in Peru. Watch the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Italy, and enjoy some lager beer at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Have fun, stay safe and enjoy your voyage.

FAQ

Can I get a family passport for me and my small children?

The United States no longer offers family passports, not even for infants. All US citizens must have their own individual passport.

Do I have to go to a passport office to apply for a passport, or can I handle all this online and through the mail?

A new passport requires that the applicant turns in the application to the passport acceptance office in person. Only routine renewals of existing passports can be handled via post.

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