Passport applications can be an excellent source of genealogical information, especially about foreign-born individuals. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has passport applications from Oct. 1795-Mar. 1925; the
U.S. Department of State has passport applications from Apr. 1925 to the present.
The Department of State has issued passports to American citizens traveling abroad since 1789, but did not have sole authority to do so until August 23, 1856, when Congress passed an act (11 Stat. 60) prohibiting other governmental entities, such as state and judicial authorities, from issuing passports.
Foreign travel in the nineteenth century was much more frequent than one might expect. Overseas travelers included businessmen, the middle class, and naturalized U.S. citizens who returned to their homelands to visit relatives. For example, statistics show that the State Department issued 130,360 passports between 1810 and 1873, more than 369,844 between 1877 and 1909, and more than 1,184,085 between 1912 and 1925. It is unknown how many American citizens traveled abroad with passports issued by state or judicial authorities prior to 1856 or without any passport prior to 1918.
Although 95 percent of mid-19th century passport applicants were men, many women also traveled overseas. If the applicant was to be accompanied by his wife, children, servants, or other females under his protection, their names, ages, and relationship to the applicant were stated on the passport application. One passport was then issued to cover the whole group. Likewise, when children traveled abroad solely with their mother, their names and ages were indicated on the mother's passport application. Passport applications by women in their own names became more frequent in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and by 1923 women constituted over 40 percent of passport applicants.
To effectively and efficiently use passport application records, the researcher should identify the persons who traveled overseas and the approximate years of travel. The researcher should not automatically assume an individual never traveled overseas, because, as indicated above, foreign travel in the nineteenth century was more common than one might expect.
Since passports were generally valid for two years or less, the researcher should search the indexes covering the individual's entire lifetime because he or she may have submitted several applications. Multiple applications by the same person may provide conflicting, but useful, clues for further research.
Example: Frank Bernard applied for a passport on August 9, 1900, and again on May 16, 1905. His 1900 application stated that he immigrated to the U.S. on Jan. 4, 1888, aboard the ship Arabic and that he was naturalized in the county court of Kings County, NY, on July 22, 1895 (M1372, roll 562, No. 31399, Aug. 9, 1900). Slightly different dates are reported on Mr. Bernard's 1905 application: February 12, 1888, for his immigration and July 22, 1896, for his naturalization (M1372, roll 677, No. 103830, May 16, 1905).
Limitations. Many U.S. residents traveled overseas without holding a U.S. passport, for two main reasons:
- Not Required. As a general rule, until 1941, U.S. citizens were not required to have a passport for travel abroad.
Exceptions to general rule:
- Passports were required from August 19, 1861, to March 17, 1862, during the Civil War.
- Passports were recommended, but not required, by President Woodrow Wilson's Executive Order 2285 of December 15, 1915, which stated that all persons leaving the U.S. should have passports.
- Passports were required from May 22, 1918 (40 Stat. 559), until the formal termination of World War I in 1921 by treaties.
- Passports have been required since the passage of the act of June 21, 1941 (55 Stat. 252) and subsequent legislation.
- Passports were required from August 19, 1861, to March 17, 1862, during the Civil War.
- Aliens were Ineligible. As a general rule, the U.S. government only issued passports to U.S. citizens.
Exceptions to general rule:
- Aliens who had declared their intent to become a
citizen could obtain a passport pursuant to the act of Congress of March 3, 1863 (12
Stat. 754) which was repealed May 30, 1866 (14 Stat. 54). Few passports were issued under
this law, however.
- Aliens who had declared their intent to become a naturalized citizen could obtain a passport pursuant to the act of Congress of March 2, 1907 (34 Stat. 1228), which was repealed June 4, 1920 (41 Stat. 751).
- Aliens who had declared their intent to become a naturalized citizen could obtain a passport pursuant to the act of Congress of March 3, 1863 (12 Stat. 754) which was repealed May 30, 1866 (14 Stat. 54). Few passports were issued under this law, however.
This section describes the four major types of passport applications: regular, emergency, special, and insular, and also describes miscellaneous related records.
Most passport applications were for "regular" passports. The earliest passport applications were generally handwritten letters, but by the 1860s most were submitted on printed forms. The State Department issued regular passports without charge until July 1, 1862, when a three-dollar application fee was instituted.
Date of Birth: Most applications state the applicant's exact date of birth; however, earlier applications may not. Example: Mordecai D. Lewis was said to be "aged about Forty six years or thereabouts." (M1372, roll 4, No. 4232, Mar. 30, 1836).
Place of Birth: Most applications state the exact town of birth, but some simply indicate the state or country. Examples: George Eger's birthplace is simply stated as the "Kingdom of Wuerttemberg" (M1372, roll 183, No. 20973, May 20, 1872), while Mathias Mazanec's birthplace is stated exactly as Rybakovic, Bohemia (M1372, roll 214, No. 50445, July 13, 1876).
Physical Description usually includes the applicant's age, height, forehead ("broad, medium"), eye color ("blue," "grey," "hazel"), nose ("straight"), mouth ("medium," "mustache"), chin ("round"), hair color ("dark," "black"), complexion ("healthy," "fair"), and face ("round," "oval").
Occupation is sometimes indicated. Example: Michael Phillips was noted to be a member of the NY bar [i.e., a lawyer] (M1372, roll 214, No. 50343, July 6, 1876).
Foreign destination and the applicant's reason for foreign travel are stated on some applications. Example: Mr. J.B. Howard, in an application letter dated Mar. 31, 1836, at Philadelphia, wrote: "I was requested by Mr. Robt. W. Morris of Boon County Missouri to procure him a passport to the Spanish provinces." (M1372, roll 4, No. 4233, Mar. 31, 1836).
Naturalization: The passport application for a naturalized citizen may also state the court and date of naturalization and the date and ship upon which the applicant immigrated to the United States. Evidence of the applicant's naturalization as a U.S. citizen may be detailed or cursory.
Example 1: Michael Caffe, 1836. John D. Campbell, a notary public, stated on Michael Caffe's application that "I know him to be a naturalized Citizen of the United States of America." (M1372, roll 4, No. 4235, Apr. 1, 1836).
Example 2: George Eger, 1872. The date and court of naturalization is written vertically across the face of some applications, such as George Eger's, which indicates he was naturalized in "Comm[on] Pleas [Court] Hamilton Co[unty,] Ohio 30th March 1864." (M1372, roll 183, No, 20973, May 20, 1872.
Example 3: Michael Phillips, 1876. If the applicant became a naturalized citizen by virtue of being a minor at the time of his father's naturalization, it will usually be stated on the passport application. For example, Michael Phillips submitted the naturalization certificate of his father, Matthew, and his application stated that he "arrived in this Country under 5 years of age & am a naturalized Citizen by parentage, my father, now deceased, having been duly naturalized." (M1372, roll 214, No. 50343, July 6, 1876).
Example 4: Michael Mazanec, 1876. His application indicates that his surname was written as "Maraner" on his naturalization certificate, a valuable clue to the researcher who might otherwise never discover the naturalization record filed under the misspelled name (M1372, roll 214, No. 50445, July 13, 1876).
Photographs have been required with applications since December 21, 1914.
Indexes and chronological registers of applications for regular passports have been reproduced in two National Archives microfilm publications:
M1371. Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications, 1810-1906, rolls 1-9, cover the periods Dec. 21, 1810-Oct. 7, 1817; Feb. 22, 1830-Nov. 15, 1831; and Nov. 14, 1834-Feb. 28, 1906.
M1848. Index to Passport Applications, 1850-52, 1860-1880, 1881, 1906-23, rolls 1-57, include several indexes:
Index to Passport Applications, 1850-52, on rolls 1-28, was created by NARA staff many years ago, and duplicates the information in M1371, rolls 2-4.
Index to Passport Applications, 1860-80, on rolls 28-29, was created by NARA staff many years ago. It is an incomplete index to that time period, and only partially duplicates the information in M1371, rolls 3-4 .
Index to Passport Applications, 1881, on roll 29, was created by NARA staff many years ago, and duplicates the information in M1371, roll 5.
Index to Passport Applications, 1906-23, on rolls 30-52, was created by State Department staff at the time the passport applications were submitted.
Index to Passport Extensions, 1917-20, on rolls 53-57.
Regular passport applications have been reproduced in two National Archives microfilm publications:
M1372. Passport Applications, 1795-1905 (694 rolls), covers the periods Oct. 27, 1795-Nov. 30, 1812; Feb. 22, 1830-Nov. 15, 1831; and May 13, 1833-Dec. 31, 1905.
M1490. Passport Applications, 1906-March 31, 1925 (2740 rolls) covers the period Jan. 2, 1906-Mar. 31, 1925.
Emergency passports were issued abroad by diplomatic and consular officials for emergency purposes only and were valid for only six months. Issuance of emergency passports began in 1874 but was discontinued pursuant to an act of Congress of July 3, 1926 (44 Stat. 887).
Emergency passport applications of native and naturalized citizens include the applicant's date and place of birth, occupation, permanent U.S. residence, date of departure from the United States, place of residence abroad, purpose of the application, and the length of time the applicant intended to reside abroad. In most cases, applicants desired a passport for purposes of identification. Applications by naturalized citizens also include the original date and ship of immigration to the United States; the date and place of the ship's embarkation; the date and court of naturalization; the applicant's current foreign travel, including the date of departure from the United States, the ship's name, the arrival date, and the foreign port of destination.
Indexes to emergency passport applications have been reproduced in two National Archives microfilm publications:
M1371. Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications, 1810-1906, rolls 10-11, contain indexes to emergency passport applications, 1874-1906.
M1848. Index to Passport Applications, 1850-52, 1860-1880, 1881, 1906-23, rolls 57-59, includes an index to passports issued abroad (emergency passport applications), 1906-18.
- Card index to applications filed in Berlin, Germany, 1895-1902 (not available on microfilm).
Applications have been microfilmed as Emergency Passport Applications (Passports Issued Abroad), 1877-1907 (56 rolls). Applications for 1874-1876 no longer exist.
Special Passport Applications
Over the years, the Department of State has issued various types of special passports. Since World War I,
the "Passeport Diplomatique" has been issued to diplomatic personnel, while other special passports have
been issued to government officials traveling abroad on official business.
Indexes to special passport applications include:
M1371. Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications, 1810-1906, rolls 12-13, contains these indexes:
Indexes to special passport applications, 1829-1894, by U.S. diplomatic and consular officers, military attaches, secretaries of legations, and other government officers and their families, on roll 12.
Register of special passports issued at New York, 1862-69, on roll 13.
Register of "Special Passpports Granted by John Forsyth, Secretary of State," and by successor Secretaries of State, 1836-64, on roll 13.
Register of "Special Courier Passports," 1865-69, on roll 13.
"Passport Account of J.B. Nones," 1867, on roll 13.
"Passport Account of George F. Baker," 1864-69, on roll 13.
Chronological register of special passports issued from Aug. 21, 1894 through May 1, 1897, shows the name and official title of each applicant, the date of application, and the passport number. (Not available on microfilm).
Chronologically arranged letters ("requisitions") by executive branch agencies requesting the Department of State to issue special passports to employees, 1861-1891. (Not available on microfilm).
Applications are available for 1829-1925. (Not available on microfilm).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States exercised sovereign control over certain lands referred to as insular possessions or territories. These residents applied to the Department of State for a passport on an insular passport application. NARA has such applications from residents of Hawaii (1916-1924), the Philippines (1901-1924), and Puerto Rico (1915-1922).
These applications include the applicant's name, date and place of birth, occupation, permanent residence, physical description, and father's citizenship. The wife's name and the number of children were also included if they were going to travel with the applicant.
- M1848. Index to Passport Applications, 1850-52, 1860-1880, 1881, 1906-23, rolls 59-61, contain an index to consular registrations, 1907-21, and roll 61 contains an index to registration certificates of widows, divorced women, and minors, 1907-17.
You may do research in passport applications, 1795-Mar. 1925, in person at the National Archives Building, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. Begin your research in the Robert M. Warner Research Center. Staff is available there to answer your questions.
Researchers coming from a distance may wish to call in advance of their visit (1) to verify research room hours and (2) to have any additional questions answered. The Consultant's Office can be reached at 202-357-5400.
Some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional facilities have selected microfilmed passport records. Use our microfilm catalog to determine which NARA facilities have passport microfilm, or call the facility to verify passport microfilm availability.
To obtain passport applications by mail
Paper copies of passport applications, 1795 - March 1925, can be ordered by mail from:
National Archives and Records Administration
Attn: Archives I Research Support Branch (NWCC1)
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408-0001
To obtain passport applications through an online request
E-mail requests should be sent to email@example.com.
Please include the following information in your request: your name and mailing (postal) address; the passport applicant's name, year of birth, place of residence at the time the application was made, and the approximate year of travel. The applicant's year of birth and place of residence are used to distinguish between persons having the same name. If we locate the records that you request, we will send you an order form and instructions on ordering copies.
Paper copies of passport applications, Apr. 1925-present, can be ordered by mail from Department of State, Research & Liasion Branch, 1111 19th Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20522-1705.
For information on the history of passports, see:
- Goodman, Leonard S. "Passports in Perspective." Texas Law Review 45 (Dec. 1966): 221-279. History of passports from the 13th-20th centuries in England and the United States.
- U.S. Department of State. The United States Passport: Past, Present, and Future. Washington, DC: Department of State, 1976.
For information about passports and other State Department records available from NARA, see:
Eckhoff, Mark G. Population Data in Passport and Other Records of the Department of State. Reference Information Paper No. 47. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1973. Out of print.
Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. 3 vols. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration. 1995. Available online or for purchase.
Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration. Revised 1985. Available for purchase.
Inventory of the General Records of the Department of State, 1789-1949, Inventory No. 15. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992. Available.
Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996. Available online or for purchase.
Nicastro, Kathie O., and Claire Prechtel-Kluskens. "Passport Applications: A Key to Discovering Your Immigrant Ancestor's Roots." Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 25 (Winter 1993): 390-394.
Sharp, Rebecca K. "They traveled abroad: Historic passport applications reveal information about U.S. citizens." Voyage: The Official Journal of the Titanic International Society, Inc. 64 (Summer 2008): 201-207.
For information about passports issued by non-Federal entities, see:
- Bryan, Mary G. Passports Issued by Governors of Georgia, 1785 to 1809. Washington, DC: National Genealogical Society, 1959. Reprint, 1977.
- Potter, Dorothy Williams. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers, 1770-1823: Indian, Spanish, and Other Land Passports for Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, North and South Carolina. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990.
This web page is adapted from Kathie O. Nicastro and Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "Passport Applications: A Key to Discovering Your Immigrant Ancestor's Roots," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 25 (Winter 1993): 390-394.