One of the reasons America is sometimes described as being an insular country is the low ownership or passports, and thus the low rate of international travel. Which in some ways is fair enough; in comparison to Europeans, for example, popping over to another country is often a bigger deal than jumping on a train. But Ted read that only 7 per cent of Americans own passports and wondered where the figure comes from. It seems the statistic varies, for example:
- 25%: “75% of Americans don’t own a passport”
- 22%: “just 22% of Americans own a passport”
- <20%: “less than 20% of all Americans own a passport”
- 15%: “85 percent of Americans do not own a passport”
- 10%: “only 10 percent of US citizens *ever* own a passport”
- <10%: “fewer than 10 percent own a passport”
- 7%: “only seven percent of Americans own a passport”
None of these are remotely official but I can’t find an official government statistic for passport ownership. The closest I’ve found is this page of the number of passports issued per year. First, lets be generous and say that every passport was issued to an adult and therefore lasts ten years. Assuming that everyone who’s been issued a passport over the last ten years still has it, that’s 60,884,784 people with US passports. Given the US population is around 280 million, that gives us 21.7 per cent owning passports. Taking into account some of these will be five year passports, we have a figure that’s probably a little under 20 per cent. Is there any reason this calculation would be way out?
Incidentally, I graphed the statistics for US passports issued per year [updated 24 April 2004]. You can see the dramatic rise over the past ten years. This may account for some of the lower figures people give; they could simply be out of date. Using the same method for the years 1981-90, for example, we get less than 15 per cent ownership, without taking into account five year passports. If the rate of issue stabilised at around 7 million per year, never mind further growth, then by 2013 around a quarter of US citizens will own a passport (assuming the same total population).
Update: From the comments, the Economist has a subscriber-only article that states 34% of Americans over the age of 18 own passports, but cite no source for this. By comparison, it says 41% of Canadians over 18 have passports. (10 Sep 2005)
Update 2: Here is a source for the above figures, the Canada Tourism Commission research report ‘The Potential Impact of a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative Passport Requirement on Canada’s Tourism Industry’ (500K PDF). They conducted “household surveys” in Canada and the US with the results summarised in a table titled ‘Passport possession in the United States and Canada’ on page 4:
|2005 Survey Results||United States||Canada|
|General population (18 years and over)||34%||41%|
|Same-day travellers (transborder)||44%||60%|
|Overnight auto travellers (transborder)||50%||70%|
|Overnight air travellers (transborder)||67%||75%|
The percentages of passport holders among those who travel between the two countries might help to make better comparisons with Europeans travelling between countries. (21 Nov 2005)
Update 3: From a 2008 report (PDF) from the United States Government Accountability Office:
According to State data, about 28 percent of the U.S. population has a passport, with 85.5 million U.S. passports in circulation as of February 2008.
(25 March 2010)
Update 4: Here’s a map showing US passport ownership by state. (25 Feb 2011)