The Life of Passport Stamps

When we entered Australia, we had the chance to use their shiny e-Passport system, which expedites border entry for citizens of specific countries and has cut most wait times to around 10-15 minutes. Instead, we chose to wait in the standard line for more than an hour to get through customs. It’s not that we thought the e-Passport system would violate our privacy, or compromise our digital security. It wasn’t that it was hard to use. No, we stood in a low-tech customs line because we wanted our passport stamped. After all, at this point we’ve gotten stamps from more than 8 countries. How could we miss out on one? It’s a completionist’s nightmare, and we’ll wait in line, thank you.

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Pages of my passport with stamps from Central and South America

The passport stamp has provided evidence of travel for centuries, reminding travelers of their experiences and enabling governments to control the flow of people between borders. Passport stamps arose with passports in Europe during the 1800’s, but the modern system of passports and controls wasn’t developed until World War I, when hostilities and compulsory military service necessitated greater understanding of who was travelling where. Following the war, most countries kept the passport system and passport stamps became a common method of tracking human travel. Governments can determine where you’ve been by flipping through your passport, and can bar your entry; several nations (including Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia) will deny you entry if your passport contains a stamp from Israel. Depending on who your country is aligned with, your passport stamps could also raise some eyebrows when you go home and lead to questioning.

Despite their role as a bureaucratic tool, passport stamps have become a part of travel history and culture. Travelers covet and record the stamps.  Passport stamps from places that no longer exist remind us how much the world has changed in just a few short decades. We romanticize the passport stamp in our culture, with passport stamp patterns adorning everything from stationery to pillows and coffee thermoses. The passport stamp has come to symbolize sophistication and worldliness.

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People mill around after exiting customs and immigration in Hong Kong. Immigration areas are no-photo zones, so you’ll just have to imagine us waiting patiently in line, inching forward.

Back in Australia, we reached the front of the immigrations line and present our passports with an explanation. “We know as U.S. citizens we’re supposed to use the ePassport line, but we really wanted our passports stamped. Would that be alright?” The immigration agent looked up at us. “We don’t stamp passports anymore,” he replied, deadpan. I experienced a moment of dismay, then thought he was joking. This wouldn’t be the first time a customs agent has had a bit of fun with us. “Wait, you’re kidding, right?” I asked. “Nope,” he says, “we just stopped last Tuesday.” We had missed the Australian stamp by less than a week!

We asked the immigrations official if he’d be willing to stamp our passports anyway. He chuckled, “Sure, alright, I still have the stamp. Good thing you arrived now; they haven’t taken those yet.” With a loud thud, he inked a stamp onto a page in each of our passports. We asked if he gets many requests for stamps like this. “No, not many,” he replied. I guess we passport stamp hunters are a rarer breed now. And as electronic and biometric identification become more commonplace in travel hubs, passport stamps will become rarer as well.

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The Australia stamp, perhaps the last one ever issued. 

Hunting for information on passport stamp history, I encountered a few lamentations over the diminishing use of the passport stamp. Some reply that the loss of the passport stamp is for the better if it reduces hassle at immigration and during travel. Others look to collecting something else as proof of their journey, such as unofficial travel stamps. But what would the ideal future look like? What could we implement that would do away with the cost and trouble of a physical passport stamp, but still evoke the memories of a trip?

One possibility is to harness technology to create a digital “stamp” to collect. This could range from something as simple as a QR code in the welcome area that links to a country’s welcome webpage, to something as sophisticated as data embedded on your passport that you can privately access online. In the latter case, governments are already collecting and collating this information—why not make it accessible to the person it belongs to? Integrating it with digital records that we make during our travels – video, pictures, writing – and we could create whole travelogues of our experiences, richer than what we might remember years later when we glance at our passport stamps.

But it’s hard to beat the physicality of a stamp. Each of the things listed above would have to be accessed consciously and intentionally. A passport stamp travels with you, visible and present whenever you carry your passport. It’s as much a reminder of your trip as it is a government approval to travel across borders.