A passport is an identity document used for international travel.
A passport certifies the holder's identity, the holder's nationality (usually) and gives the holder the right to leave and re-enter a country. A passport is issued to the holder by the government of the country of which he or she is a citizen.
- It is the ultimate identity document, as it is backed up by a government.
- The right to leave and re-enter one's own country is regarded as a Human Right in most countries. But, in order to exercise this right, you must be able to prove you are a citizen of a country. A passport is a document which proves you are a citizen.
- Without the right to re-enter your own country (for example, as proved by a passport), it is unlikely any other country would let you in as they might not be able to get you out of the country.
Passports began in Europe in the middle ages. The name comes from the French, a "port" is a city gate, and a passport was originally a pass to leave a city and travel to another city. In other languages the name for a passport translates as "travel pass". The passport system died out in Europe during the 19th century, as the increases in travel brought by the industrial revolution and railways made it unenforceable. Passports were re-introduced during the First World War as a way to stop enemy spies entering a country. After the First World War the system was made permanent.
Passport standards are agreed internationally. Modern passport are to a common standard, have sophisticated anti-forgery markings and include a chip containing the holders details to aid in preventing forgery.
Passports contain pages which can be stamped at border crossings. The stamp is used as a record of where and when a person enters or leaves a country, and provides a check that they do not stay longer than allowed. Each country has its own rules, and may or may not stamp a passport. Commonly countries do not stamp the passports of their own citizens. Countries may also make agreements where they do not put limits on each others citizens staying, and therefore do not stamp passports. In some cases where countries issue national Identity Cards, these are accepted by mutual agreement in Lieu of passports, for example between EU countries.
Until the mid 1990's (exact date varies by country) it was possible for a wife to be included on her husband's passport, and for children to be included on their parent's passports. This is no longer the case, and everyone, including new born babies, must have their own passport.
As a government-issued photo identification, passports can serve other purposes requiring identification, such as boarding an airplane or purchasing alcohol.
In the U.S., passports are issued by the State Department and can be obtained at local post offices. Long delays of several months are common, but there are private services in Washington that for a fee will cut through the red tape and obtain a passport for a customer in a day or two.
A Visa is a document issued by a country authorising you to enter and / or leave that country.
In some cases in order to enter a country, as well as a having a passport from your own government, you need to get first get permission from your destination country's government in the form of a visa. This can be either a stamp in your passport or a separate document. Visas are typically obtained from the country's embassy before starting your journey.
A visa is usually for a specific purpose, for example a tourist visa, a student visa, or a work and residence permit.