Passports--for Revenue Only


WHEN John Quincy Adams was Secretary of State, with a record as a tourist that would be considered exceptional even to-day, he gave a fellow citizen who wanted to travel a passport and his commendation, both free. The following is a passport of the time of the Monroe Doctrine: —

To all to whom these Presents shall come, Greeting:

The Bearer hereof Luther Bradish, Esq., being about to visit different foreign countries with a view of gratifying a commendable curiosity, and of obtaining useful information, These are therefore, in a special manner, to request all whom it may concern, particularly all foreign States, Powers, or Potentates, and their officers, to permit the said Luther Bradish to pass freely without molestation, in going, staying, or returning, and to give him all friendly aid and protection, as these United States would do in like cases. In faith, etc.,
Done, etc., 15th day of April, 1820.

(Signed) JOHN QUINCY ADAMS Secretary of State
When Mr. B radish’s great-grandson, having obtained his bachelor of arts degree and having received from his aunt a gift large enough to cover an all-expense tourist-third foreign tour, wishes to gratify his commendable curiosity and obtain useful information by visiting Westminster Abbey, Montmartre, and the Roman Forum, he will not find the Secretary of State so sympathetic. His own government will demand $10.00 for a simple statement of his identity. When he has this document he must pay $10.00 each to the British, French, and Italian governments. For this outlay, which is about one tenth the cost of his trip and which will contribute nothing at all to the broadening of his personality, he receives an American passport good for two years, British and Italian visas valid for one year, and a French visa good for two months.

If Mr. Bradish were a German he could obtain a passport valid for two years for $1.20 and could renew it annually for three years more at a yearly cost of 72 cents. His British, French, and Italian visas would cost $2.00 each, unless he could qualify as an indigent person, in which case he could get an Italian visa for 40 cents. If he were a British citizen his passport would cost $1.80 and would be valid five years. It could then be renewed annually for another five years at a cost of 24 cents a year. If he were a Canadian his passport would cost $5.00, but it would be good for five years and could be renewed for a second five years for $2.00. As a French citizen his passport would cost $1.40, and as an Italian $2.00. Each would be valid a year. As an American his minimum passport expense to visit the principal Allied and Associated Powers is $40.00. As a German he could visit his former enemies for a passport cost of less than $8.00. If the young Mr. Bradish were going to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and if he fulfilled the Oxford expectations in the matter of travel, his passport and visa fees for three years would aggregate about $150.00. One of the writer’s friends, who returned to America in 1925, spent $230.00 on passports and visas during his three years as a Rhodes scholar. If the German scholarships were reestablished at Oxford, a German Rhodes scholar could accompany his American associate on all his European travels with a passport allowance of about $25.00.

Passports were issued gratis by the State Department until 1856, when a charge of $1.00 was imposed for passports issued abroad. In 1888, after a charge of $5.00 during part of the Civil War and most of the currencyinflation period that followed, the regular charge for all passports was made $1.00. An application fee of $1.00 was added in 1917. These figures stood until 1920, when there was an increase to $10.00, of which $1.00 is for the application and $9.00 for the passport. Since 1926, the Secretary of State, in his discretion, may extend the ordinary two-year passport for two additional years to bona fide teachers without extra cost. If a passport application is filed through the clerk of a state court, as permitted in some localities, the state may retain the application fee. Nearly all applications come through Federal channels. The visa fee is the same as the passport fee. The high American charges are directly and solely responsible for the visa fees Americans have to pay to the British, French, Italian, and several other governments. A reduction of the American visa charges to $2.00 would automatically reduce practically all of the high foreign visa charges to the same sum. Congress in 1925 authorized the President to reduce visa fees or abolish them altogether in case of non-immigrants whose own countries would make reciprocal arrangements with the United States. No such reciprocal agreements have yet been announced.


The State Department issues about 200,000 American passports a year. This gives the government an annual revenue of approximately $2,000,000, or one third more than the total annual appropriation for the State Department. The appropriation for the Passport Bureau is $63,000. If the cost of a passport is meant to reimburse the government for its expense in giving to its traveling citizens an identification document, the price is extortionate.

If the passport charge is a revenue measure, — and such a purpose is universally condemned by the best international opinion, — it is grossly unfair, because it must be paid largely by a scattered, uninfiuential group, mostly composed of persons upon whom the tax is an unconscionable burden. It is scarcely going too far to call it a tax on education. No good reason has ever been submitted in support of a policy that compels traveling college students and schoolteachers to pay the whole upkeep of our ministry of foreign affairs. When the passport and visa fees were raised to $10.00 in 1920 it seemed to be jocosely assumed in Congress that most travelers were going to Cuba and could easily afford $10.00 additional expense for a passport. Neither passport nor visa is now required for a Cuban trip. Another legislative assumption was that the diplomatic and consular service was for the benefit of traveling Americans and that they should help pay for it. Congress now appropriates $500,000 a year for the immigration work of our foreign representatives. This sum is covered about three times by the immigration fees alone. The affairs of traveling Americans and aliens intending to visit the United States occupy only a small fraction of the total energies of our diplomatic and consular representatives. The passport and visa fees, other than fees for immigration visas, could be greatly reduced and still amply compensate the government for all service rendered. It would be far more appropriate than the present system if a large part of the cost of our foreign service were assessed against American exporters. Needless to say, no such proposal would be considered for an instant.

Passport control in both Europe and the United States is a product of the war. The passport is a modern institution. It was practically unknown in ancient and mediæval times. In the ancient world the stranger was, by definition, an enemy. Roman imperial couriers had a sort of safe-conduct which entitled them to the use of public horses. Similar papers were sometimes given to court favorites as a mark of particular favor. Germany in the fifteenth century developed a kind of passport as a device for dealing with the hordes of beggars and vagabonds that swept the country after the religious wars. Louis XIV of France required travelers on the main post roads to be provided with passports. This exaction was largely for fiscal purposes, although the passeport des artisans was required more especially to prevent the departure of craftsmen who might teach trade secrets to foreign competitors. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were periods of passport strictness, but the comparative peace that followed saw a gradual discontinuance of passport use on the Continent. The commercial convenience that was responsible for the origin of passports had practically caused their disappearance, except in Russia, by 1914. Writers on international affairs confidently stated that no civilized state could maintain a passport system. Passports could be obtained in each country, but their use was optional. There was practically no frontier passport control.

The war revived passport laws long since forgotten, and produced a new brood of statutes and regulations. The basis of the French regulations was an old law of 1792. In the United States the legal warrant for controlling the conduct of alien enemies was found in the Alien Act of 1798. War restrictions have been modified slowly, although nothing approaching the freedom of international intercourse prevailing in 1914 has yet been attained. Two passport conferences have been held under the auspices of the League of Nations, one in 1920 in Paris, the other in Geneva in 1920. Delegates representing thirty-eight states attended the 1926 conference. The United States was not even unofficially represented. The 1926 conference favored the continuance of passport requirements, but was inclined to work for the abolition of the visa. It was pointed out that pending the discovery of a different kind of document a passport is one of the most useful papers a traveler can have. It enables him to claim the protection of his diplomatic and consular representatives if he gets into any difficulty, and is immediate evidence of his identity if he wishes to receive money, sign documents, or obtain registered mail. A passport makes it easy for a traveler to have access to his own country without delay and without formalities. If there were no passports some other identification document would have to be devised.

Arguments as to the convenience of passports do not have complete relevance to the system of compulsory passports now in vogue, and have little or no bearing upon the system of compulsory visas. The visa requirement is generally useless and vexatious. The strict application of any passport system in time of peace is exceedingly difficult. Even in war time the control is far from perfect. Unscrupulous persons can always find places easy of access. There can be real control only at the principal ports of entry. Desirable visitors enter at these places, others elsewhere. The protection that passport control offers to the frontiers is nothing. European countries are rapidly eliminating the visa requirement on a reciprocal basis. France requires no visas from the nationals of twenty-seven countries, Great Britain none from the nationals of eleven, and Italy none from those of seventeen. Similar arrangements are common and are being rapidly extended.

American visa requirements are tied up with our new immigration policy. Passport visas and immigration visas are distinct, and it would be entirely possible under reciprocal arrangements by treaty or otherwise to abolish passport visas without relaxing the control over the entry of immigrants. The resulting convenience to a half-million American travelers each year would be a powerful argument in favor of such a policy. Nevertheless it is so easy to misrepresent the purpose and the effect of such a proposal that it would have little chance of approval. There is no good reason, however, why the American passport fee should not be immediately reduced to $2.00 with a visa charge at least as low. The passport should be valid for five years. Great Britain, the British Dominions, and several other nations have adopted the five-year principle, and representatives of other countries announced at the League of Nations Conference of 1926 that the example will be extended.


The League of Nations Conference of 1926 recommended the adoption of an internationally recognized identity document for persons without nationality. No nation is under greater obligation to participate in the development of such a document than the United States, which has had such a large responsibility for creating persons without nationality. Under the law of most nations an alien woman takes the nationality of her husband. This rule, essentially international in its application, was changed independently by the United States in 1922. Since then if an alien woman marries an American the law of this country does not give her the status of a citizen, although in nearly all cases she loses her prior citizenship irrespective of her wishes.

This means that she can obtain a passport neither from the United States nor from her own country. If she wishes to go to Europe with her husband she must first obtain from the Labor Department a permit to return. This is good for a year and costs $3.00. Although the permit contains the significant facts about the applicant and her status, no foreign consul will grant a visa on it. She must also execute an affidavit setting out her name, residence, date and place of birth, inability to obtain a passport, personal description with photograph, and statement of the object of her visit. If she executes the affidavit before an officer of the State Department, he may charge $2.00. If she executes it before a notary, he may charge whatever he thinks the victim will pay. This document may or may not be visaed by the consular officer of the country to be visited. One consul may affix his visa stamp, while the consul of the next country may suggest a trifling amendment in the affidavit which will require it to be reëxecuted, perhaps by a notary recommended by someone in the consul’s office. The visa charge is always made on the assumption that the affiant is an American, whatever her own claims or actual loyalties.

Even Switzerland, generally indifferent in passport matters, requires visas from persons of no nationality. If a German or an American goes to Switzerland, neither requires a visa, but if a German girl, married to an American, appears with him at the Swiss border without a Swiss visa on her identification affidavit, he will be admitted and she will be turned back. (It is true that if she is attractive, and if her husband will view the matter in a practical way, she will likely obtain an eight-day police permit. After that she can go anywhere in Switzerland. Since she needs no departure paper,

thhis really means that she can stay as long as she likes.) This is not the end of the discrimination against her, however, for upon her return to the United States, notwithstanding her permit to return, she must pay a head tax of $8.00, irrespective of her length of residence in the United States, the status of her husband, or the number of her previous entries. It is not clear whether the Congressional purpose is to encourage Americans to go abroad without foreign-born wives or whether it is to advise citizens to take their foreign-born wives abroad and abandon them. American girls should be encouraged by the knowledge that there is not only a tariff on foreign brides, but also a recurring tax on peripatetic foreign-born wives.

The survival of the excessive American passport charges so long after the war and the failure to remedy the unfortunate situation of alien wives of American citizens are due largely to legislative inertia. No one is strongly opposed to a relaxation of regulations adopted in a period of war-time hysteria, but there is not enough force behind the demand for amendments to compel Congress to make a thoroughgoing revision. There is no real public appreciation of the possibility and desirability of greatly increasing tourist travel from a prosperous Europe to the United States. It is to be hoped that at the next session a few friendly senators and representatives will care enough for the liberal reputation of this country and for the convenience of American travelers to induce Congress to do a simple act of justice and common sense.