Passports: Convenient or Discriminatory?

Passports are a modern concept. Yet, they carry the marks of long-standing societal inequalities. From being used for leisure travel to excluding communities from their human rights, their power is undeniable. In this article, our author enlightens us on the history of passports, their uses, and a glimpse into a better digital future.

by Polykum Redaktion

by Lukas Valentin Graf

It’s barely bigger than a notebook, only a few dozen pages, and in Switzerland its cover is a bold red colour: the passport. As inconspicuous as it may seem, it is crucial at border control, for example, especially if the few pages of paper were forgotten at home. Passports entitle us to cross the border, leaving one country for another – or prohibit us from doing so. The term passport contains the two Latin words “passare” (to pass) and “porta” (gate or door). In the best cases, a passport is a door opener. In the worst, it means that some doors will remain closed. If you had a Swiss passport in 2022 you could travel to 186 countries in the world without restrictions. If you instead held a passport from Afganisthan, Syria or Iraq, this number was hardly more than 30. Thus, depending on which state issued your passport, you might see a lot of open doors, or you might find a lot of them closed or hard to open. Arguably, our passport decides whether we are considered an expat, traveller or tourist, or an illegal immigrant.

A brief history of the passport

In Switzerland, the first passports were handed out in 1910. These were handwritten, easy to fake and soon replaced by more sophisticated models, which then also included a photo of the passport holder. Before the beginning of the 20th century the concept of passports was little known. For instance, to enter the United States, immigrants coming to the Ellis Island had to prove that they were healthy – identity cards or citizenship documents were not requested. In medieval and early modern Europe, passports were documents to guarantee travellers – mostly pilgrims and traders – permission to cross the territory of neighbouring duchies and kingdoms. These passports were merely individual agreements between secular and/or spiritual rulers and had little in common with modern passports. Rather, they were a kind of letter of protection that allowed people to cross foreign territory without fear of being seen as unwanted and potentially hostile intruders.

At the time when modern national states started to form and nationalistic politics saw a rise, passports became increasingly important – and in many countries even mandatory. They fulfilled two functions: First, passports were used to control who could enter a country and who couldn’t. For instance, in the United States, the “Chinese Exclusion Laws” were enforced around 1900 to reduce immigration from China as Chinese immigrants were considered “anti-American”. A second function was to prevent people from leaving a country as it was done in the German states of Borussia and Bavaria. These countries were emigration countries for a long time (like Switzerland, by the way), due to economic, social, and religious factors. Furthermore, passports can also be used to stigmatise people as was the case with the Jews in Nazi-Germany. Belonging to a certain community was recorded in identity documents so that they could be denied certain benefits or rights.


Not surprisingly, criticism of passports is as old as passports themselves. For example, critics noted early on that identity documents were used to privilege certain people or parts of a country’s population. In most cases, these were population strata that were socially benefited, whose comforts were once again confirmed by the freedom of travel made possible by the passport. Other, less well-off sections of humanity were conversely even more restricted in their mobility by the passports than before. Mobility can thus be understood as both a geographical and a social concept. This is particularly important in the context of liberal societies that function according to the merit principle. Simply put, everyone should have the opportunity to achieve social advancement and economic well-being through effort and hard work. However, this principle is violated when origin or ancestry in the form of citizenship, and thus a passport is more decisive than individual effort. Thus, employees in Switzerland who come from so-called third countries are subject to higher requirements for a residence permit than immigrants from the Schengen area. Since origin, like the social status of parents, is not an achievement, one of the fundamental principles of free societies is curtailed in its scope. Of course, this is grossly simplistic and problems of social inequalities are much more complex (thus more difficult to solve), but it should be worth our while to reflect on the meaning, or lack thereof, of passports and state citizenships as we know them today.

The future

Perhaps some of these issues will be solved by advancing technological developments. Perhaps one day we will spend part of our time in virtual worlds where we can effortlessly overcome borders? Or perhaps new borders will be erected in digital worlds or real ones replicated? Truth be told, no one has the answers. With the increasing penetration of all areas of our lives by the internet, it seems only logical that the passport system will also have to adapt to the digitalised world. In Switzerland, for example, there is already a platform called Swiss ID that enables legally valid identification for online services – similar to the way we have to show our IDs at the supermarket checkouts to buy a bottle of wine.

There is lots to look forward to. Will the future of passports be fully digital? For now, it’s almost impossible to say, but we can only hope that it will open doors for as many in the world as possible instead of closing them.

Lukas Valentin Graf, 26,
is doing his PhD in Agricultural Sciences. He got a new passport last summer that was seemingly too new for the officers at the Turkish border control who suspected the passport was fake. After showing his (older) identity card in addition, he was finally allowed to enter the country.

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