Timeline of the World's Passports - From Bible to Biometrics

Everything that we enjoy in modern society started as a simple idea, often driven by necessity. Take the postal service for example. When people were unable to visit those who lived far away, either because they lacked the transport to cross oceans, or they had families to care for and couldn't travel, they would send others to relay messages.

These first communications were oral, then parchments with transcribed words replaced word of mouth. As more and more people learned to write and wanted to communicate around the world, statewide systems were set up. And so, something simple became systematised and modernised.

Today we have dedicated buildings with stamps and envelopes. And then the internet came along and we created digital post offices, like Hotmail and Gmail, with electronic mail.

Now with emails we can communicate instantly what could have taken months to travel around the world.

The passport, though still a printed document, experienced a similar transition. It was not always the biometric identification it is today. It began (it seems) with the Bible...

• 450BC - The first known mention of a passport-type document was in the Hebrew Bible, during the reign of the Persian Empire. A citizen of Persia wanted to travel to Judea. In order to ensure his safe passage, he asked the King for an official document requesting safe passage for him. The King obliged, writing a letter containing the request ''to the governors beyond the river''.

• 632BC - A form of passport, called a bara'a appeared in medieval times in the regions of the Islamic Caliphate (state). The bara'a was used as a receipt for taxes paid to the Caliphate allowing bearers to travel to other regions, like a very basic passport.

• 1414BC - Under the reign of King Henry V of England, documents granting travel began to appear in Parliament. The Privy Council of England called these papers, officially and for the first time: ''passports''.

• 1914 - With passports now part of regular travel among many countries, including Britain, they were being used increasingly for identification purposes. During World War One, European governments introduced photographs, as well as physical descriptions of the bearers in passports for security reasons. Though controversial at the time, many of the changes remained, such as the photograph.

• 1920 - In 1920, the League of Nations held the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets. As a result, the European guidelines and a general booklet design for the passport were ironed out. This was a big step towards the standard European passports we know today.

• 1980 - Despite further conferences in the 60s, there weren't any more changes to passport regulations until 1980 when standardization was introduced under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

The new standards included making passports machine readable and heralded the universal adoption of a numerical string of characters that identifies each passport. This allows passports to be processed faster at border control.

• 2006 - From 6 March 2006 the UK began to to gradually introduce bio-metric passports. The new e-passport included a new design, along with a chip containing the holder's facial bio-metric.

More and more information can be contained in the chips as technology improves. In some countries, such as Iran, information on eye colour and height are also included in the data contained on the e-passport.

Need more information?

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