The Traveling Minority

“Do you know that only 5 percent of American own passports?”

I hear it all the time: a frequently-quoted statistic that gets thrown around at home and abroad, either by condescending foreigners or self-righteous, well-traveled Americans.

Their exact numbers tend to fluctuate–7 percent, 9 percent, 15 percent–yet no matter the number that’s quoted, it’s always shockingly low–so low that all of us within earshot are shocked by our backward fellow citizens and yet proud to be part of the astute traveling minority.

Well, I’m tired of the rhetoric.

I’m also tired of listening to made-up numbers tossed around at dinner parties and happy hours. And so I decided to find out the truth: Exactly how many American citizens have valid passports? Lucky for me, I live in Washington, D.C. and can literally knock on the door of the State Department and simply ask them, “How many Americans carry passports?”

The first thing I learned was that I didn’t have to actually go down to the State Department. All these nifty passport statistics are available online.

The other thing I learned is that our feigned shock at America’s passport-holding minority is severely outdated. Yes, at the end of the eighties, only 2.8% percent of Americans carried passports. But by the time I applied for my very first passport in 1991, I  joined the ranks of the 14,344,241 fellow Americans who had passports—5.7 percent of the population (252,127,402).Indeed, that was shockingly low.

However, things have changed. A full twenty years later and according to the U.S. State Department (in January 2012) there are now 109,780,364 Americans who hold current passports. That is slightly more than 35 percent of the current population (312,800,000)–more than a third of the country.

What’s changed? Well, the most significant development was the introduction of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) in 2007. The new travel regulations required Americans to hold passports in order to travel to Mexico, Canada, and the island nations of the Caribbean. Remember the good old days when you could enter Mexico with a birth certificate or fly to St. Maarten with a driver’s license? Me too, but they’re long gone.

But even taking the new regulations into consideration, a much larger percentage of Americans own passports than ever before. The real question is, once we have our passports, do we use them?  Given the massive size of the United States, foreign travel usually involves a flight across an ocean. Compare that to the year I lived in Belgium, when I could take my car out on a Saturday and drive to five countries in four hours.

That explains why in the United Kingdom, nearly 80 percent of British citizens hold passports. (If having a passport was the only way for you to get off an overcast island the size of Oregon, you would apply for one too.) Meanwhile, less than two percent of Chinese citizens hold passports.

So don’t knock us Americans. We are traveling more now than ever before, and if current trends continue, we should become a traveling majority by 2020.


  1. Monica
    January 29, 2012, 11:32 pm

    I don’t have a passport but my 20 year old son does. He went to France when he was 14, The Netherlands when he was 18. He loves to travel. I would love to travel, it’s just not possible right now, so for now I do my “traveling” with you 🙂

  2. Jay Kane
    February 6, 2012, 12:38 am

    I own a vacation home that I rent out to travelers on sites like HereStay and HomeAway, and I’ve met plenty of people who travel the U.S. but don’t have passports because they’re not needed…I think anyone who travels from state to state, without ever leaving the country, would still qualify as a seasoned traveler, wouldn’t they?

  3. […] (with extra pages). Everybody should have a passport. I ordered mine extra thick but I still cringe every time a customs official fills up one of my […]

  4. marty weiss
    Mexico, Missouri
    March 8, 2012, 8:39 pm

    Had a passport in ’68, went to Europe, but it expired. Traveled the lower ’48 and Canada lately. But I decry the need to have “papers in order”. People are prior to papers, just like labor is prior to capital. Governments have the bad habit of owning captive populations. There’s a culture in the South Pacific that has always lived in their boats. Their regular routes include several different nations which now all want these people to have papers and settle down. The principle of inalienable rights confers supremacy on people, not papers. I know, I know– we’re a long way from that kind of true egalitarianism, but such inclusiveness is inevitable in a globalized world. I may resent it, but I recognize the imperative of ID in today’s antique world. Your suggestion is quite apt. And if the US fascists complete their coup, passports will be handy.

  5. Grant
    March 13, 2012, 12:35 am

    Marty Weiss uses a lot of big words.

    Las Vegas
    March 26, 2012, 1:16 am

    I have 2 expired passports, why 2? One was a tourist and one was official. I plan to renew this year to go to Asia next year, Thailand/Korea. Everyone in my family has a US passport.

    Having ID is important, otherwise someone else can claim to be you.

  7. […] is the world has to offer, I do believe I have more perspective than a majority of Americans; only a third of us hold passports. How many of them have lived abroad? How many are willing to reconsider everything they believe […]

  8. […] than one-third of Americans hold a passport, so be a part of the rebellious percentage that can leave the country and travel whenever they […]

  9. […] with a passport is relatively low compared with other countries. Depending on how you crunch the numbers it’s between 35%-39%. Cost, coupled with the inconvenience of the process may hold people back. Plus, a lot of people […]

  10. Sylvia+Ben
    August 19, 2013, 2:33 pm

    Would it have to do with the need to look for work elsewhere in the world ? Because that would be the demographic I’m in.
    I’m a Colloquial English Teacher in the Philippines doing the rounds of Call Centers all over the country. They speak very good english here so they don’t need english teachers from outside. English is the medium of instruction in all schools starting from even preschool here. I found work as a Colloquial ET with a Midwest accent. I do the rounds of those call centers that have clients in the US Midwest which means their operators would definitely be answering calls from the clients’ customers from the MW. Staying for only a month in each CC that requires my services, I teach the operators here how to speak with a MW accent.

    There are so many Americans in this belt I’m moving in. I meet many along the way. CETs from different parts of the US, teaching operators here how to speak like they’re, “just from around the corner” over there anyway.

    Could that be a major factor as to the sharp increase in passport issuance ? Because I cannot think of any other reason.

  11. […] extra pages). Everybody should have a passport. I ordered mine extra thick, but I still cringe every time a customs official fills up one of my […]