The British Passport Over The Decades

"Let him depart; his passport shall be made" - Henry V, Shakespeare.

Passports date all the way back to medieval times. During the reign of King Henry V, people had to carry safe conduct documents, notes signed by the monarch, in order to enter another country. The king could issue these documents to anyone, regardless of their citizenship. The Monarch never needed a safe conduct document - and to this day still does not.

UK passport

From 1794, the Secretary of State (think of them as the Home Office of the 1700’s) took control of the travel documents . They issued passports and kept records of every British passport issued. It was not until the First World War that passports were required for international travel - this was to determine British citizens from foreign citizens. Thus was the creation of the first modern British passport - a single document folded into eight, with a cardboard cover and a detailed personal description. The personal description would have details like ‘round chin’ or ‘small nose’. People were relieved when the descriptions were no longer needed, as some citizens saw it as dehumanising.

The passport slowly became more modern after that. Most changes took place in the 1970’s and 80’s.

UK Passport History© Crown copyright

We can expect some futuristic alterations to be made to the new passport. It will have the security chip hidden, which makes the passport more difficult to forge. It will feature biometric data, such as photographs, fingerprints and iris patterns. The passport will also display iconic images from across the nation and have another photograph of the holder printed on the observations page, which is two pages wide now.

Our humble passport has come a long way. Even though the British passport is considered a safe international travel document, forgery and alteration is still taking place. It’s good to know extra security features will be added.

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