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Patricia O’Brien Shawker, CG, FMGS, “Passport Applications: A Rich Genealogical Resource,” OnBoard 13 (May 2007): 13, 15.

Passport applications can be an excellent source of genealogical information for ancestors who were known to have worked or traveled outside the United States. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has the passport applications, not the actual passports, that were issued by the State Department from October 1795 through 31 March 1925. The textual records are available at Archives II in College Park, Maryland; microfilm of most passport applications are available at Archives II, Archives I in Washington, several NARA Regional facilities, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Applications issued on or after 1 April 1925 are in the possession of the U.S. Department of State.1

As a general rule, passports were not required for foreign travel except during the early portion of the Civil War (August 1861–March 1862) and after World War I (May 1918–1921). By 15 September 1914, passports were recommended for those who traveled abroad. Although it was not until 21 June 1941 that passports were required for foreign travel, more than 168 million were issued prior to the requirement.2

Number of Passports Issued

Years Passports Issued
over 369,844
over 1,184,085

Americans traveled abroad in the nineteenth century more frequently than you might expect. Those who traveled overseas included businessmen, government workers, middle and upper class individuals, and naturalized citizens and their families, who had prospered in the U.S., returned to their homeland to visit relatives. Women applied for passports in their own names toward the end of the nineteenth century; by 1923 they represented over 40 percent of passport applications. Although passports were normally issued only to U.S. citizens, from 1863 to 1866 and from 1907 to 1920, resident aliens who had filed a declaration of intention were allowed to have a U.S. passport. Native-born citizens completed application forms different from those filed by naturalized citizens.3

Passport Applications include the following genealogical information:

  • Applicant’s age or birth date and signature
  • Place of birth and residence at the time of issuance
  • Occupation of applicant and reason for foreign travel
  • Physical description; photographs were required after 21 December 1914
  • If an immigrant, the ship and date of arrival, the date and court of naturalization
  • If traveling with family, spouse and children’s names with relationship and age
  • Foreign destination or destinations
  • A list of previous passports issued and countries visited

Historically, four types of passport applications were issued: regular, emergency, insular, and special passport applications. The regular passport applications represent the majority of passports issued, and like today, were issued to citizens who were leaving the country.4 Emergency passports were issued outside the United States by diplomatic and consular officials to U.S. citizens in a foreign country for emergency purposes only; they were usually issued to serve as identification and were valid for only six months.5Insular passports were issued in the early twentieth century to individuals living in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.6 Special passport applications were issued by the State Department to diplomats and government officials and their families traveling abroad on official government business.7 With the exception of insular passport applications, most other passport applications are indexed.8There may have been more than one application filed by an individual since passports for these periods were usually only valid for two years.

In 1896, Paul Morrison of Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, submitted a passport application. He solemnly swore that he was born in Kovno, Russia, on or about 16 November 1867, that he emigrated to the U.S. on an English vessel that left from Liverpool on or about 1 November 1884. He further stated that he resided in the United States uninterruptedly from 1884 to 1896 in Chicago, Illinois, that he was naturalized as a citizen of the U.S. before the Superior Court of Cook County at Chicago, Illinois, on 12 October 1891 as shown by the accompanying certificate of naturalization. His permanent residence was Chicago where he was a wholesale jeweler. He was twenty-nine years of age, five feet eight inches tall, had a high forehead, brown eyes, a large nose, a medium mouth, a round chin, black hair, a dark complexion, and a round face. His residence at the time of his application was 178 E. Madison Street, Chicago, Illinois (NARA microfilm publication M1372, roll 462, Application No. 8727, 1 April 1896).

To use these records most effectively, one needs to identify an ancestor who might have had a passport and to find the approximate date of issue or the passport number. As seen in the example listed above, passport applications are a valuable source of genealogical information.

1. Copies of later applications must be obtained from Department of State, Research & Liaison Branch, 1111 19th Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20522-1705. For more information, see: http://travel.state.gov/pass-port/services/copies/copies_872.html.
2. See: http://www.archives.gov/genealogy/passport/.
3. Ibid.
4. National Archives (NARA) microfilm M1372 covers applications from 27 October 1795–31 December 1905 (with gaps) and M1490 covers those issued from 2 January 1906–31 March 1925.
5. NARA microfilm M1834 covers 1877 to 1907. Those issued from 1907 to 1926 are available in textual records only. Emergency passports were discontinued pursuant to an Act of Congress passed on 3 July 1926.
6. These applications are available in textual records only at Archives II and there are no indexes to the insular passport applications. The U.S. territories issued insular passports were Hawaii (1916–1924), the Philippines (1901–1924), and Puerto Rico (1910–1922).
7. The applications are indexed; however, they are available at Archives II as textual records (1829–1925) or from the Family History Library (FHL) on microfilm (1829–1897), volumes 1 through 13 only.
8. Indexes to passport applications are available in NARA. Microfilm publications M1371, Registers and Indexes for Passport Ap-plications 1810–1906 and M1848, Index to Passport Applications, 1850–52, 1860–1880, 1881, and 1906–1923. Some M1848 entries duplicate those on M1371, however rolls 30–52 cover 1906–1923 and continues where M1371 ends. Passport “extensions,” 1917–1920, are on rolls 53–57.


Patricia O’Brien Shawker, CGSM

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.