A Record Number of Americans Now Have Passports

Illustration by Diego Patiño

International air travel is not for the fainthearted. Long airport lines, intrusive security checks, extra baggage fees and cramped seating define the experience. Crossing borders by car is no solution. Long lines, gruff immigration officers and heightened security often create numbing delays. Yet despite all the indignities and costs of travel, more Americans than ever hold passports.

Last year, the number of Americans with a valid passport hit a record 117,443,735. That's more than double the number a decade earlier, and a huge jump from the number of American passports in the 1980s. Today more than 1 in 3 Americans have a valid passport, versus 1 in 30 back in 1989.

Growth in the number of U.S. passports has been under way for a while. Valid passports quadrupled during the 1990s. Since then, new regulations and heightened security concerns following 9/11 have more than doubled passport applications. Formerly, Americans traveling to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda were not required to show a passport. But by 2007, the federal government had introduced new rules that required a passport for all trips outside the nation's borders. That had a big impact, since over half of all trips by Americans are to Mexico or Canada. The change in rules was evident in the number of passports issued in 2007, a record 18,382,798.

The total number of trips isn't increasing as fast as the number of passports. Last year, Americans went on 61.5 million international trips, up 38 percent from the beginning of the 1990s, according to the Census Bureau. Most of those trips were for vacation, followed by family visits and business.

A common perception has been that Americans tend to have limited experience and knowledge of the rest of the world. But as more and more Americans get passports and experience travel abroad, that may change.