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What year was the passport first used and why was it required?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: April 09, 2013 
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What year was the passport first used and why it was required?

Gregory Morrow

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Dear Mr. Morrow,  

The first recorded prototype of a passport dates to 450 BC, when Nehemiah, serving as an official to the Persian King Artaxerxes I, wished to visit his ancestral homeland of Judea, and the king issued him a letter "to the governors beyond the river," asking that he be granted safe passage to travel and ultimately return to Persia.

When Nicolo and Mafeo Polo returned to Europe from the court of Kublai Khan after 15 years, bringing a letter to the Pope from the Mongol Emperor, they were issued with a set of "golden tablets" inscribed in a variety of languages, directing that they be given safe passage and all assistance in getting home.  Likewise, Nicolo's son, Marco Polo, returned from China by way of Persia, to which he was bringing a bride for the Emperor of Persia, he was provided with a similar set of "golden tablets."

The first formal passports as we know them (referring to entering the "port" or door of a castle, rather than seaports, which by nature were then open to anyone coming to trade) are attributed to King Henry V of England, who issued them as safe-passages to Englishmen traveling anywhere beyond his holdings in Britain and France.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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