From Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life, on the 1803 outbreak of war between Britain and France, after Britain demanded Malta and Napoleon then wanted to know whether this demand was an ultimatum threatening war:

In fact Whitworth [the British ambassador to France] merely asked for his passports, the traditional ambassadorial request prior to a declaration of war.

This passage from the same book, about a later war, suggests that asking for passports isn’t merely a symbolic gesture, but associated with leaving the country:

Metternich [Austrian ambassador to France] remained in Paris until the last possible moment before requesting his passports, perhaps in order to continue gathering secret intelligence.

Indicating that a request for passports doesn't necessarily mean war, although supporting the idea that they are usually connected, Tolstoy writes in War and Peace:

Balashev [a Russian envoy to the invading French] recovered himself and began to speak. He said that the Emperor Alexander did not consider Kurakin's demand for his passports a sufficient cause for war; that Kurakin [the Russian ambassador to France] had acted on his own initiative and without his sovereign's assent, that the Emperor Alexander did not desire war, and had no relations with England.

This also comes up in British ambassador Edward Goschen’s account of the outbreak of WWI:

I said that in that case [Germany refusing to withdraw its troops from Belgium] I should have to demand my passports. After expressing his deep regret that the very friendly official and personal relations between us were about to cease, [Arthur Zimmermann, German Under Secretary of State] asked me casually whether a demand for passports was equivalent to a declaration of war. I said that such an authority on international law as he was known to be must know as well or better than I what was usual in such cases.

Are these “passports” the equivalent of what we today understand to be passports? If so, why are the diplomats asking a foreign government for their passports? As far as I can tell, passports have always been issued by the bearer’s own government, and not by the country they are visiting. This I think would be even more true for diplomats, who are even less subject to the jurisdiction of the country they are visiting than ordinary tourists.

Could these so-called “passports” be what we today call an “exit visa”, sometimes issued to visiting aliens? As far I can tell, exit visas are a 20th century concept. And if these “passports” are exit visas, that just raises further questions: How would a country replace its ambassador with another one without accidentally declaring war? Did John Adams risk war with France when he left for Holland? etc.

And why is “passports” used in the plural in all these passages?

  • 8
    Just a guess but it sounds as if these "passports" are documents guaranteeing the safety of the diplomat and allowing them to leave the country after delivering a declaration of war (so as not to be the first prisoners of war). Nov 5, 2015 at 19:30
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    What we now take for granted, might not be true in XVIII or XIX century. Prior to post-WWI, there seem to have been no clear universally-accepted definitions of what is a passport, a laissez-passer, or a visa. Actually we can surmise quite a different set of passport-related practices, because of: 1) lower quality of paper, 2) slower and costlier communications, 3) lack of computers, 4) lack of photography, 5) impossibility to print a passport, 6) reliance of wax seals etc.
    – ach
    Nov 5, 2015 at 19:41

1 Answer 1


Until recently (by historical standards, anyway) a passport or passports was just another term for safe-conduct papers. Oftentimes it was just a sheet of paper written, signed and stamped by someone in authority, saying that such-and-such (sometimes just "the bearer of this") could pass through some kind of check-point. Now and then a plus-one would be mentioned.

In the second act of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, the provisional governor of Rome, Scarpia, issues one to the title character. The paper mentions "Floria Tosca and the gentleman accompanying her."

When Richard Wagner, the composer, wished to leave Riga (part of the Russian Empire at the time) where he had lived and worked for a couple of years, he visited the city's governor, asking him to write him and his wife a passport. The governor turned him down, saying he will do no such thing until every single one of Wagner's debts was paid off.

  • What is a "plus-one"? Mar 13, 2018 at 23:07
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    @MichaelHardy An arbitrary second person chosen by the recipient, like with a dinner part invitation. Jun 12, 2018 at 21:32
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    @MichaelHardy In this context, the primary meaning would be a wife, although it could refer to a traveling companion in general. May 6, 2019 at 17:08

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