Southern California Genealogical Society

Techniques and Tips: Federal Passport Applications
By Jo Anne Sadler

Passports, visas, letters of transit, student visas, diplomatic passports, temporary work permits--these documents help governments regulate the crossing of international borders. In our modern world, we accept and, for the most part, do not question these controls.

It is, however, a very modern system that we now live with and accept as a way of life. Passports have not always been, and still are not at times, a requirement for crossing international borders. American citizens have freely crossed into Canada and Mexico and most Caribbean countries (with certain restrictions) without a passport. Consider the recently instituted Euro community and the open borders that this unification of Europe has created.

There have been many fluctuations in passport requirements in the United States due to war, social and political trends. 20th century modernization and the aftermath of World War I had a great influence in formulating our current passport system.

The Department of State has issued passports to U.S. citizens traveling abroad since 1789. Up to 1856, state and judicial authorities also could issue passports, but this article only addresses Federal passport records. With two short-term exceptions, until 1941, there were no statutory requirements that American citizens had to acquire a passport for traveling abroad.

The National Archives has custody of the passport records dating from October 27, 1795 through March 31, 1925. There are various, but incomplete, indexes and registers for this period and are available on microfilm. The National Archives can accommodate research requests. They require the individual's personal information and approximate year of travel. Records are arranged chronologically and generally, the passports were only issued for two years.

Obtaining the dates of travel can be found by researching passenger lists, or if you are lucky enough to have it, from the actual passport.

Passport applications may include information on an applicant's family status, date and place of birth, naturalization, occupation, physical characteristics and final destination. In the 1800's, 95% of passport applicants were men, however, traveling family members and servants were also included on the application.

The passport application would not provide travel information such as entrance/exit stamps, visas, residence permits, etc., as this information is entered into the passport book after issuance.

The Department of State handles the passport records from 1925 to present. Their Web site advises that these records are covered by the Privacy Act and only allow a person to obtain copies of their own applications.

Passport applications are an often-overlooked genealogy resource; we should not assume that our ancestors never traveled.


National Archives and Records Administration
Attn: Old Military & Civil Records
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20408-0001
Email inquiry -
Website -

History of passports:
Canadian Passport Office

A very readable listing of the National Archives microfilm indexes which are available for rental through a local LDS Family History Center.

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