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Passport Applications at the National Archives

 

One of the most commonly requested records at National Archives at College Park - Textual Reference are passport applications, particularly because this is a moment when a photo of an individual or family may appear in Federal records. 

 

The Department of State issued passports to US citizens traveling abroad as early as 1789 (and some were issued by consular officials during the Revolutionary War).  Archives II’s collection covers 1795 through 1925. 

 

These earliest passports do not have the same amount of information as modern passports. They were simple sheets of paper that contained basic information about the bearer, including a brief visual description.

[Left Image: RG 59, M1372, Roll 001 - 27 Oct 1795-30 Nov 1812, Right image: RG 59, M1372, Roll 001 - 22 Feb 1830-15 Nov 1831]

 

Many travelers acquired passports in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but, it is important to note that the Department of State only required their use during two periods: the American Civil War (August 19, 1861, to March 17, 1862), and World War I (May 22, 1918 until the formal termination of World War I in 1921).  Outside of that time, acquiring a passport was voluntary, expensive ($10 in 1920, plus the cost to sit for a photograph), and generally limited to men traveling for business or wealthy families on vacation. 

 

One of the most notable limitations is that passports were often issued only to men, as head of household, on behalf of the entire family.  Wives were not given their own passports, and neither were single women who traveled with a male chaperone.  Wives, children, and chaperoned single women would have traveled under their husband or chaperone’s passport.  To this end, it is common to see a family photograph in a passport application.

 

[Both images Roll 0251 - Certificates 1101-1500, 22 Jun 1915-24 Jun 1915]

 

After World War II, women traveling abroad alone became more common and there was a rise in passport applications submitted by women.  On June 21, 1941, the modern passport became a requirement for travel outside of the United States.

 

If you are starting a search for family members who traveled before 1925, it is possible that you will find their application in NARA’s collection. These records are available on microfilm. They were also digitized and added to ancestry.com as part of a digital partnership. Many of these images are already in the National Archives Catalog, and a larger collection (M1372, Passport Applications, 1795–1905) will be available within the coming months.

 

Digitized Passport-Related Records:

 

Please note that the actual passports issued to US citizens are not among the records held by the National Archives. The Department of State issues passports directly to citizens. 

 

The State Department has custody of passport applications dated after 1925.  According to the State Department’s website, all requests for information or passport records of a third party are processed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For information on how to request a historical application (ie, not your own), please visit their website.  If you have any questions about your current passport application, please visit https://passportstatus.state.gov/

 

For additional information, please visit our passport guide online: https://www.archives.gov/research/passport

If you have any questions about working with pre-1925 passport applications, please email the National Archives at College Park - Textual Reference for more information: archives2reference@nara.gov.










The National Archives is currently digitizing microfilmed records; once digitized, publications are added to NARA’s primary online Catalog covering all federal agencies. Foreign Affairs researchers, however, may benefit from beginning their search in the more specific Microfilm Catalog

 

For Department of State (RG 59) publications, the Microfilm Catalog lists a wealth of research possibilities. Popular publications include the main series that comprise the pre-1910 segments of the Central Files (Instructions, Despatches, Notes, Letters, and the Numerical and Minor Files), as well as heavily used series from the twentieth century. If you are looking for a particular country or a type of correspondence, you can use the Microfilm Catalog to quickly narrow your search.

 

For example, if you are starting a research project relating to Germany, you may be interested to see what records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are available on microfilm and what has been digitized.  One quick way to narrow your search is to use the Advanced Search option. Here, you can put your country name into the “Publication Title” field, and 59 into the “Record Group” Field. This search will give you 66 results; each publication relates to Germany in some way. From that list, you can browse the titles to see what is available, and narrow your search accordingly. 

It is important to note that not all records will be as easily searchable, but if you know the type of correspondence that you are looking for, you can search using specific terms. For example, you may be interested in Instructions from the Department of State. Before 1801, the Department maintained Consular and Diplomatic correspondence together. After 1801, the correspondence was separate.  You can learn this in the microfilm catalog by doing a quick search for “Instructions.” 

 

You can use the Microfilm Catalog to quickly determine if there is a finding aid for the publication.  Often called Descriptive Pamphlets (DPs), these finding aids include complete roll lists and usually include historical and contextual information about the publication. You can find them on the right hand side of each publication’s page. For the “Instructions” example, this will be important because the finding aid will let you know which rolls pertain to your research and whether you will need to narrow your search by location or by date.   

 

If a series is digitally available, you can learn that from your search results. The main results screen has a column called “Digital Availability;” if the publication was added to the National Archives Catalog, that column will note such availability.  It will also note if a publication was digitized by one of our partners, like Ancestry.com or Fold3.com. In these cases, the availability column will say “Available by Partners.” If the publication is not yet digitized, you can determine quickly which facilities hold copies of the publication. Many publications are held at regional NARA facilities that may be closer to you.

 

When you place an order for microfilm (these days they come on a DVD or by electronic transfer), you may use the Microfilm Catalog to learn the publication number and rolls of interest. Therefore, when you contact the holding facility, you can be as specific as possible.*

 

Many researchers do not realize how many National Archives microfilm publications have already been purchased for use by university and research libraries.  You can use the finding aid and publication title (often different from the titles used in the NARA Catalog) to search for the publication via interlibrary loan offices at a university or local research library.  You might even find the publication on worldcat.org.  Please note that the National Archives does not participate in interlibrary loan. All publications that circulate by interlibrary loan were purchased from NARA by other institutions.

 

If you have any questions about working with foreign affairs records in the Microfilm Catalog, please email the Textual Reference Branch at Archives II for more information: archives2reference@nara.gov.

 

*At the time of posting, reproduction services have not yet resumed at the National Archives due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Please check back for updates to our services.

 

Foreign Relations of the United States, commonly referred to as FRUS, is a Department of State publication, dating back to 1861, that presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity. It does not include documents on every topic covered in NARA’s holdings; there are records on more topics than featured in the publication, which makes FRUS a good place to start research on foreign affairs.

 

In the 1860s, the publication was an annual review. It highlighted the important policy documents, decisions, and discussions of the previous year. Later, as classification issues became more apparent, the publications took longer to review. The publications are now printed approximately 30 years after the events occur, allowing sufficient time to pass for reasonable declassification.

 

The volumes draw upon a wide variety of sources across the U.S. Government to create an accurate and reliable historical record for everyday citizens, historians, scholars, and anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy. In recent volumes, you can expect to find documents culled from records created by the Department of State, as well as the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House (held at Presidential Libraries), and other agencies involved in policy making.

 

FRUS is an exciting resource for researchers for a variety of reasons. First, the FRUS editors curate collections of documents on a particular subject, allowing researchers to identify pertinent records on viable topics. Second, the footnotes and citations provided in FRUS include the file numbers to the documents selected, which will lead a researcher to a wide variety of other records on the same subject that were not included in the volume. Third, FRUS provides open access to recently declassified records.

 

Archivists at the National Archives recommend starting your research on U.S. foreign policy by consulting Foreign Relations of the United States, and if further research is required, contacting the National Archives with the sources cited in FRUS. Volumes are available online at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/