King Henry V of England is credited with having invented what some consider the first passport in the modern sense, as a means of helping his subjects prove who they were in foreign lands. The earliest reference to these documents is found in the Safe Conducts Act 1414.
The British passport first made its appearance in the reign of Henry V in the form of a ‘safe conduct’. The Privy Council granted passports from at least 1540, and one of the earliest still in existence was issued on 18 June 1641 and signed by Charles I. Since 1794, they have always been granted by the Secretary of State, and a record exists of all passports issued since that date.
(Above) British passports issued in 1857 (left) and 1862 (right).
In 1855, passports became a standardised document issued solely to British nationals. They were a simple single-sheet hand-drafted paper document. A photograph of the holder became a requirement at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The familiar blue British passport came into use in 1921. The last of these will expire in 2003.
1414 – The earliest recorded British passport can be traced back to documents known as safe conducts. These appeared in an Act of Parliament under the reign of Henry V.
1540 – The Privy Council, which advises the monarch, granted passports from at least 1540.
1641 – The oldest passport still in existence was issued on 18 June 1641 and signed by Charles I.
(Above) A very rare 17th century British Passport signed (“Charles R” at head), licensing Sir Thomas Littleton, Bt., “to passe out of this our realme into the part beyond the Seas, there to remayne the space of three yeres” with four servants, fifty pounds and “his trunckes and necessaries”, Hampton Court, 22 May 1636 – Photo Credit – Bonhams
1778 – Until 1778 passports were written in English and Latin. After this date, they were issued in French which was the language of diplomacy at the time.
1794 – All passports began to be issued by the Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who we would now call the Foreign Secretary. Previously all passports would have been issued and signed by the King and Queen.
1915 – The first modern-style British passports, including a photograph and signature were first issued. They were made of a single piece of paper that folded out and sat between cardboard covers.
1921 – The first blue passport in the format of a book was issued in 1921, it had 32 pages and was written in French after League of nations passport conference implementing passport standards in 1920
1947 – The final passports issued bearing the signature of the Foreign Secretary were issued.
1968 – UK passports began to be issued with validity for ten years, double the previous validity.
1972 – The first security feature was introduced to the passport – a special watermark. Laminated photographs would follow in 1975 and further security features in the 1980s.
1988 – The first burgundy coloured machine-readable passports were issued in the UK following the common format introduced by the European Economic Community.
1998 – The first digital UK passport was introduced which included a digital image of the photograph and signature.
2006 – The first biometric passports were issued with an electronic chip featuring the holder’s data.
2008 – The first e-Passport gates were introduced in the UK. There are now around 240 ePassport Gates operational, covering 21 air and rail terminals, helping to speed up arrivals and improve border security.
2016 – The passport renewal process went entirely online for those aged 26 and over.
2017 – We recently announced that all those over the age of 16 can now renew their passport online.
2019 – The new blue passport will be phased in from October 2019, in line with the new passport contract.
Passports are issued using royal prerogative, which is exercised by Her Majesty’s Government; this means that the grant of a passport is a privilege, not a right, and may be withdrawn in some circumstances. British citizen passports have been issued in the UK by Her Majesty’s Passport Office, an agency of the Home Office, since 2014. All passports issued in the UK since 2006 have been biometric.
The National archives holds searchable archives of passport registers from 1795-1993 and entry books of passes issued by Secretaries of State to people traveling into and out of Britain from 1674-1794.