Why You Need Travel Papers

Written by | Adventures, Quick Reads

Q: Did people need a passport and visa to travel abroad before WW1?

Yes they did, but the documents were neither as universal nor as standardized as they are today. That is the part World War I (and colonialism, and several other things) changed.

Before the 19th Century, passports of some sort had been a necessity for travel in many places. The medieval Islamic caliphate had the bara’a, which was essentially a receipt for taxes that you had to show to travel within the country. Either during the Qin Dynasty or before, passports became an essential, mandatory travel document for everyone in the kingdom.

In the Ashanti kingdom, ambassadors carried their credentials, which could either be symbolic or written or both[1] .

The symbolic ones could be shields, swords, hats and such. The credentials essentially worked as passports.

In England, King Henry V’s government begun issuing passports to help its subjects prove their nationality when they travelled abroad. That spread to other European countries, and was only ruined by the Industrial Age. Trains made having passport control centers impossible, so everyone just sort of quit trying to use them.

Then the war happened.

Wars might have an end-date in history, but the havoc they reap in the social fabric of humanity have a tenacious will to survive. Border passport rules were necessary from the onset of the war for obvious security reasons. Not just preventing the enemy from infiltrating your country, but also to keep the talent you needed inside the country from escaping. All the nations, including the neutral ones, quickly made passports mandatory.

The major change to global travel, which Europe controlled most of at the time, came after the war.

In 1920, the League of Nations had a conference on passports, which standardized the general booklet design and basic guidelines. There were two more such conferences that decade-just to make these pieces of paper more of a thing.

To be pedantic, over 100 what are now countries were involved in the war, and very few were members of the League of Nations. The most members the League ever had was 58, for just a year in the mid-1930s. But colonialism was in vogue, so these rules spread pretty easily. Bureaucracy works! And passports of some sort were a particularly nifty tool for controlling ‘native’ populations.

On the global scheme of things, passports and visas were meant to be a temporary post-war measure, you know, in case someone else decided the war wasn’t over (which happened anyway).

Which brings us to another interesting point. After World War 2, one of the first things considered prior to a UN conference on passports was whether it was possible to go to the pre-1914 way of not leashing people to papers[2]. You know, just let travellers do as they please.

The idea was shot down obviously-there had just been another war after all. And now a passport is a passport is a fact.


Owaahh, 2020

One Story is good,

till Another is told.


[1] Indigenous African Diplomacy: An Asante Case Study

[2] Passports Were a “Temporary” War Measure | Speranta Dumitru

Last modified: February 18, 2020