In the 20th century many states restricted the capacity of their populations to emigrate. Most famously, Churchill described the variety of emigration, financial and political restrictions in Central Europe—imposed by the Soviet Union—as an "iron curtain" due to their cohesive and impervious nature. As a result, pervasive emigration restrictions are interesting—what's their history?

Have there been other examples in history (say, up to the 19th century) where countries did not allow their citizens to emigrate or travel abroad, save by very special permit?

The only example that comes to my mind is Frederick II prohibiting study in foreign universities, but I am thinking more of blanket prohibitions.

EDIT: The answers so far are very interesting but I am mainly interested here in external passports.

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    I wonder why there was a downvote.. Jan 3, 2013 at 19:35
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    Because the title is grossly anachronistic and politically antagonistic perhaps, like you're trying to smuggle mid-20th Century Churchill into the pre-19th Century world? Jan 3, 2013 at 22:16
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    @SamuelRussell: I was explicitly asking whether a modern phenomenon X had occurred in other times. If you think it's anachronistic in the sense that "no, it hadn't occurred" then I think it'd been better form to answer thus instead of downvoting the question. As for politically antagonistic, I have no idea what you're taking about; I'm not arguing here with anyone, just wanting to know. I accept the title change though, if it makes you feel better about the question. Jan 3, 2013 at 22:25
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    @SamuelRussell: No I'm not. I'm just asking a simple and well-defined question. All the political implications only exist in your imagination. Jan 5, 2013 at 12:38
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    @SamuelRussell - while I disagree with your comment, using the term "smuggle" in this context is delicious irony that almost warrants upvoting :)
    – DVK
    May 10, 2013 at 17:15

5 Answers 5


Norway had emigration restrictions in the nineteenth century; they were lifted in 1860. From http://digitalarkivet.uib.no/utstilling/norge.htm (a page hosted by the Norwegian National Archives; the translation from Norwegian is mine:)

In some cases one wanted to keep persons from leaving the country, and the police had registries of these. The picture shows a page from one such protocol of those who were not allowed to leave the country. The reasons for one being listed here could be that one was waiting to serve a prison term, that one was owing money, or that the government feared that one would leave one's family forcing the goverment to take responsibility for it. Most of those denied emigration were young men.

List of people denied emigration

In 1860 the passport obligation for domestic travel, and for entering Norway, was lifted. Neither was a passport needed to leave the country. (link to some more info about this law.)

Until 1860 everyone travelling from one parish to another had to carry a travel certificate signed by the parish priest or local sheriff. Those leaving the country needed a passport that was obtained from the police, which also entered them into a protocol.

Summary: There was no "very special" permit, but one did need to obtain permission to leave Norway before 1860, and it could be denied even if you were not a criminal (ie for fear of you abandoning your family).

  • technically you still need a passport to leave your own country in most any country, and technically you can be denied permission. In reality, in most countries the first is hardly ever denied and the second is only enacted to prevent fugitives or people with large outstanding debts from fleeing the country.
    – jwenting
    May 14, 2013 at 6:02
  • @jwenting: yes, but in the case described here you could also be denied an emigration permit for "precautionary" reasons. Also, do you have a reference that most countries require a passport to leave? At least in Norway this was not the case until after the enactment of the Schengen treaty in the late 1990s (and then only for leaving the Schengen area). Of course most airlines (and other means of transport) will enforce passport control but that is for fear of fines/problems in the receiving country.
    – Jørgen
    May 14, 2013 at 9:35
  • try boarding an aircraft to another Schengen country. You need a passport or EU identity card (which effectively serves the same purpose) to get past airport security. While the check is mostly to see if there's a match between person and boarding pass, the purpose doesn't matter. And until Schengen, you needed to show your passport leaving one EU country for another on overland journeys. The borderposts were manned and checks were carried out (though in the end less and less thoroughly unless there was an alert out). I've encountered both frequently.
    – jwenting
    May 14, 2013 at 9:45

Sakoku was a set of Japanese policies that included the restriction that no Japanese could travel outside the country; these policies were effectively terminated in 1853.

Wikipedia has a number of examples of emigration restrictions including A 17th century Chinese restriction on emigration.

Some countries restrict the ability of women to travel abroad without a guardian, and I believe those restrictions extend into the period you describe. That may be within your scope, but it is unlikely to be easy to study.


First thing coming to mind: peasant's situation in Poland-Lithuania and Russian Tsardom. They could not leave their land without master's permission.


And even for no serfs in pre-1917 russia there was a tough [internal passport system] with few freedoms to travel or reside internally.

The Confederate States of America also had internal passports: example

Back to your question, you will be interested in this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_movement#Europe


I seem to recall emigration restrictions on Frenchmen being one of the reasons for the small population of French colonies in North America compared with the English colonies, but I'm afraid I can't place the origin of that.

Equally in the early days of a united Spain, Aragonese were forbidden to trade or settle in the American colonies, as these were Castilian claims whereas Aragon's sphere was seen as the Mediterranean.

You'll notice the common factor between these, however: they involve a state restricting emigration from the home country to places it controlled. Few pre-modern states would have had sufficient control over their borders to prevent individuals leaving their territory at all. Edited to add: And of course exile, whether self-imposed or otherwise, has often been a pressure-release valve, which it would rarely be in the interests of the state to stop up.

  • Can ou give a source for the Spanish example? May 10, 2013 at 14:09
  • I'll have a look - unfortunately that's purely from memory of studying it at A-level, so it may take some hunting
    – Guy F-W
    May 10, 2013 at 18:07

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