Guest article provided by Tom Topol, Passport History Expert.

“In the process of crossing a border, one must offer a passport, a booklet, and engage in the task of substantiating to the border officer that they embody the very essence of the documents themselves. Contrary to common belief, many individuals hold the mistaken assumption that the authentication process operates in reverse. It is an intriguing concept that the epitome of one’s authoritative representation is not found within their tangible existence, but rather encapsulated within a mere sheet of paper.”

The word “passport” derives its significance from the notion of “passing a port,” originally associated with seaports but now predominantly linked to airports. Interestingly, “port” carries the additional meaning of “gate.” Consequently, when we find ourselves within airport premises, what do we traverse? Indeed, it is the “eGates” that await us. While the physical booklet serves as evidence to establish our identity as “the document,” the term “passport” persists, having endured for over five centuries. However, we must contemplate its suitability for the future that lies ahead.

Fast forward to 2035: “YOUR BIOMETRICS, PLEASE”.

By the year 2035, the concept of physical travel documents will have become obsolete, prompting border officers to request your biometrics instead, be it fingerprints, iris scans, or vein patterns, which will be captured using advanced scanning devices. However, it is crucial to recognise that this biometric request will not be your initial encounter with identity screening. From the moment you step foot into an airport facility, an intricate web of facial recognition cameras will have already identified you. The authorities will possess knowledge of your identity, prompting them to carry out a comprehensive personal security screening. Astonishingly, an officer may address you by name, even if you have never crossed paths before. They may inquire about your experience flying business class, seated at 9A, on Sky Airline 232 from New York to Tokyo, despite you never divulging this information.

They will even possess awareness of your stay in a compact room in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, gleaned from reading your evaluation on TripAdvisor. This may sound like a work of fiction, but it is not, as U.S. authorities are already empowered to request preflight personal data, including access to your social media profiles, before you set foot on American soil.

(, Why is the U.S. still probing foreign visitors’ social media accounts?).

The trajectory of travel documents in the forthcoming years promises to be an intriguing and captivating one, regardless of the specific form they may assume. The global market for passports is currently experiencing a remarkable surge, a trend that comes as no surprise given the post-pandemic surge in travellers, flights, and tourism.

Consequently, the demand for passports has soared, necessitating enhanced security measures and heightened levels of sophistication. Crafting a modern passport entails a multifaceted challenge, encompassing considerations such as graphic design, the integration of robust security features, and ensuring technical feasibility. Can you conceive of any other personal document that surpasses the biometric passport, also known as the electronic Machine Readable Travel Document (eMRTD), in terms of sheer technological advancement? It is truly remarkable how an assemblage of cutting-edge technologies is dedicated to a document that serves the sole purpose of granting or restricting someone’s freedom to travel from point A to point B.

Two and a half centuries ago, the world existed in a vastly different state, devoid of the global interconnectedness we witness today. It is worth noting that even the United States of America had yet to come into existence during that period. At that time, the inception of a modern passport system, instigated by the French in response to the upheaval of the French Revolution, was still in its nascent stages. In stark contrast to the multifaceted and intricately designed passport booklets of contemporary times, passports of yore were remarkably simplistic.

This simplicity stemmed from the absence of concerns surrounding document security and personal identification prevalent in the present era. In essence, passports of that era possessed a purely functional nature, serving their basic purpose without the need for elaborate features.

“Mr. Jones is traveling with his wife and two daughters to the continent”.

In their simplicity, early British passports lacked any physical descriptions of the individuals they represented. It is precisely these antiquated travel documents that have captivated my attention for over two decades, fuelling my passion for research and collection. Beyond their aesthetic appeal as beautiful collectibles adorned with vibrant stamps, visas, and handwritten entries, these old passports hold a profound allure. They encapsulate documented history, encompassing elements of bureaucracy, geography, and the personal lives and destinies of their bearers. Not only do they possess historical value, but they also hold potential monetary worth, occasionally commanding significant prices in the collector’s market.

Consider, for instance, the case of a 1931 passport belonging to the esteemed American baseball icon, Lou Gehrig, which fetched an astonishing $263,000 at an auction in 2015. However, let us also ponder the significance of seemingly “ordinary” passports hailing from minuscule or extinct nations like Tanganyika, the Free State of Fiume, or Heligoland.

Though these names may evoke a sense of fantastical realms today, they were once tangible entities, albeit existing for brief periods. The realm of the British Empire, in particular, boasts a wealth of diverse passport types, some of which have become exceedingly rare and elusive in contemporary times, compelling collectors to make substantial investments to acquire these prized possessions.

In a future devoid of physical passports, these remarkable documents will continue to recount their passport historical tales, thereby enhancing their collectible value. They serve as timeless artefacts that bear witness to the unfolding narratives of our past.

So, the question, “Don’t you know who I am?” becomes redundant, for indeed, we possess a keen understanding of the individuals encapsulated within these passport narratives.