I was reading the Wikipedia on passports, and there were numerous important dates in passport history, but I didn't find any date when passports became widely used documents for travelling.

I see passports from late 19th century, and general passports were regulated by League of Nations in 1920s. Based on this my guess is that in 1920 the passports were used by almost all countries of the world.

My question is: (approximately) when passports and border checks became widespread and commonly used procedures?

UPDATE: adding more precision: when became passports (or its predecessor) as a travel document standard way to check travellers around the world?

  • I just watched Barry Lyndon, i know it's not a source for anything but apparently they already had some sort of identification papers at the time. Just saying...
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 14:27
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    I'm not sure where or if we could draw the line between "passports" and travel documents, but the later has been used at various levels by everyone. The problem might be how to define "widespread". For example, in some places medieval "passports" (so to speak) were very rarely checked since few people travelled at all in the first place.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 14:45
  • Border checks must exist way earlier than late 19th century - just think of custom duties.
    – user45891
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 14:46
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    In the first wave of globalization, from the mid-1800s until World War I, there was, I believe, widespread international migration without passports. I think this disappeared after 1914, but cursory Wikipediaing gave no definite source, so no answer from me (yet)...
    – Jørgen
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 9:02
  • This question is too broad. Until 19th century it should be confined to Europe. - Otherwise people start quoting the Bible, then jumping a few thousands of years - when even a recent period may be difficult to consider, namely Was a a passport needed to travel between UK and France in 1972?.
    – user8690
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 12:55

3 Answers 3


According to The Guardian, "passports were not generally required for international travel until the first world war". Wikipedia concurs

This matches accounts I have read of people travelling from London to Moscow without travel documents. During the First World war, they became necessary, and they never stopped being needed.

  • good catch, 1920 conference is pretty much the information what I wanted to know. Hereby I thank for the other answers, they are all valuable as well. Commented Jun 14, 2015 at 19:46
  • Obviously they should have national ID documents.
    – Anixx
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 20:26
  • @Annixx Actually, very few countries had national ID documents until the second world war.
    – Moschops
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 20:26

Forever? Every civilization makes it a priority to know who is who and keep out the unwanted people. In the Book of Judges an incident is described from 3000 years ago whereby a shibboleth is used to identify aliens. According to the Wikipedia entry on identity documents, the passports of King Henry V (15th century) were the first such documents, but various personal documentation devices certainly date back to the Romans, if not earlier. Diplomats, of course, have always carried passports since ancient Egyptian times. The word "diplomat", by the way, comes from the Roman word diploma, which was a sort of a passport, or at least was used that way.

Note that there has already been a History channel post on Roman identity documents which may be relevant ("How did the Roman state verify citizenship?").

In terms of the first country to be "checking papers" on every Tom, Dick and Harry in the modern sense, I would probably give that honor to Frederick the Great. He was a real bureaucrat and was known for appointing "Passport Meisters" who required passports even of the most ordinary people to get across borders. He definitely bumped up the usage of passports on a massive scale and set the tone for the later Prussian obsession with elaborately documenting each and every individual.

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    Your shibboleth example doesn't work. The mispronunciation of the word "shibboleth" was used to identify foreigners to keep them out; that's the antithesis of a passport, which is a device to identify trusted foreigners to allow them in. Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 19:33
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    @DavidRicherby: That's still a "border check" by any sensible definition. Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 20:55
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit True but most of the question focuses on passports rather than just border checks. Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 21:00
  • @David: Regardless, the question is (paraphrasing slightly): When did passports/border checks become widespread? Clearly, the mention of shibboleth from 3000 years ago is relevant. Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 21:09
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    The Shibboleth story in Judges 12,5-6 is not about passports; it is about identifying fugitive enemies and killing them. Most countries do not allow people to cross battle lines, with or without passports.
    – fdb
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 23:06

As for passports, AFAIK, they were introduced first in Russia by Michael I, according to ideas of an early socialist Charles Fourier.

Absolute majority (peasants) had no passport and could not travel out of the district. Many people had inner passports, that allowed to travel along the whole empire. And some people got passports that could have leave visa in it.

For example, the greatest Russian poet Pushkin never got such passport, and he had tried many times!

It was absolutely widespread. A person without passport and out of the district where he knew everybody and everybody knew him, had to be catched by police.

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    Are there any citations or sources for this notion?
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 17:04

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