How Many Americans Have A Passport?
How many Americans have a passport? This was the question a British friend asked me one day, probably based upon an assumption that much of the world has about Americans, which is that the majority of U.S. citizens do not have passports, and therefore cannot travel outside its borders. I had no idea what the answer was, so I decided to do a little research, and the answer is somewhat surprising.
The quick answer is that yes, the majority of Americans do not have a passport. The percentage of Americans who have a valid passport, according to the most recent statistics issued by the State Department in January of 2014, is about 46% (this number excludes passport cards, which are identification cards that only allow sea and overland entry to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, and certain parts of the Caribbean, but not the rest of the world.)
To get this number I took the number of outstanding valid passports (since passports expire every 10 years, I added up the number of passports issued during the last 10 years), and divided that by the total U.S. population according to the Census Bureau, which for 2013 was 316,128,839 (minus the the approximately 11.7 million people who are undocumented residents and 13.3 million legal permanent residents that live in the U.S. but cannot obtain passports or have valid passports issued from other countries).
Since there were 133,959,114 passports issued in the last 10 years, that means that 46% of the American population has a passport. For those keeping score, this means that a little less than half the population can’t fly to Canada, let alone travel to any other country in the world.
Has This Number Been Going Up or Down Year-Over-Year?
As reflected in the above graphic courtesy of the U.S. Department of State, 2013 showed a slight increase in the number of passports issued from 2012 (and 2012 showed a slight increase in the number of passports issued in 2011), but which was about 5 million fewer issued than in the peak year of 2007, and a 66% increase from the low year of 2003.
Which States Have the Highest Percentage of Passports?
I decided to take this data and see which U.S. states have the highest and lowest percentage of their population with valid passports (this data may be viewed here). As can be viewed in the top graphic, those states with the lowest percentages are clustered in the South and Midwest, and not surprisingly, those states with the highest percentages tended to be on the border of Canada and Mexico, as well as those states with higher urban populations.
Mississippi was the lowest, with just 18%, followed by West Virginia (19%), Alabama (22%), Arkansas (22%) and Kentucky (23%). The state with the highest percentage was New Jersey with 62%, followed by Massachusetts (57%), New York (57%), Alaska (56%) and Connecticut (55%).
I decided to then compare my state-by-state calculations with the results of the 2012 presidential elections. As can be seen above, there is a striking correlation between the states that voted for Romney in 2012 and those states with the lowest number of passport holders. Those states that voted for Obama had the highest percentage of passport holders (Alaska is a notable exception — a state which is historically conservative, but no not surprisingly has a high percentage of passport ownership given its remote location).
In fact, the top 18 states with the highest percentage of passport holders (states where at least 44% of the population has passports) all had a majority of their population vote for Obama in 2012 (Alaska the sole exception). Alternately, the bottom 12 states all had a majority of their population vote for Romney.
Of the bottom half of states with the lowest percentage of passport holders, only 7 of those states went for Obama (28%). Of the top 25 states, only 6 voted for Romney (24%).
Below is a sortable list of all 50 states and the percentage of each state’s population that has a valid passport.
Believe me, I’m the last person to defend anyone who doesn’t have a passport, but rather than attempting to list out the reasons I think this is bad (which is essentially what I am trying to do every day on this site), I thought I’d take a look at some of the reasons behind this number.
One factor discouraging foreign travel is simply the cost. When factoring in the costs of traveling abroad from the U.S. (which tends to be much higher than other parts of the world given its location), even the cheapest trip abroad is simply beyond the means for the average American, especially given the lingering effects of the Great Recession which has resulted in record levels of unemployment, stagnant wages and increased debt loads.
No doubt Americans just don’t have the history and drive that, say, the British have for international travel. In the 2009 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, noted travel writer Simon Winchester had this to say on the subject:
There was essentially no empire (the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and a scattering of Pacific islands excepted), and hence little by way of imperial legacy. The country is formidably isolated by thousands of miles of ocean from almost anywhere truly foreign, and getting abroad is very much more costly. Americans seldom went to seek their fortunes overseas, as British so often did . . . [and there] is little tradition of American exploration (aside from exploration-as-entertainment put on for the benefit of a number of some rather dubious but fashionable clubs and societies).
Further, there is a lack of tradition of Americans traveling abroad as they grew up given America’s size and therefore lack of need to travel to other countries to experience relatively different geographic differences.
Then factor in America’s relatively low number of paid vacation days granted by their employers, and you can quickly begin to see why there are certain cultural factors that simply lend themselves to Americans lack of international travel.
Maybe It’s Not That Bad
It’s also worth pointing out that although some places like the U.K. are just teeming with passports (75% of their population at last count), at least Americans aren’t as bad in this respect compared to, say, the Chinese, whose 20 million passport holders make up a measly 1.5% of the population (although this is partially the fault of their government).
Finally, Americans that do have valid passports do travel a lot. In fact, the U.S. is nearly at the top of the list of countries when you look at the number of people who travel from their home country to a foreign destination.
By Matt Stabile
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheExpeditioner.com. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos, purchase the book he co-edited or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com. (@TheExpeditioner)