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Based on this question, why do passports expire? What possible function does it serve to limit their validity in time?

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from philosophy perspective : nothing is eternal in this life, my friend. –  Rudy Gunawan Oct 8 '13 at 2:55
To see the other side of the coin, consider what happens with drivers' licenses. In the EU, countries have to recognize each other licenses and some had no expiration until recently. You have hundreds of different documents with different formats, some from states that do not exist anymore (e.g. the GDR), with a photo dating back decades or that could easily be forged. It's very difficult to control or enforce in any meaningful way, which is why new regulation makes expiration mandatory EU-wide (there is a grace period for older ones). –  Relaxed Oct 8 '13 at 10:08
Also, beside the good reasons provided in the answer, some countries do seem to use it as a source of income (I know one that charges several hundreds euros for a passport valid for only two years; and don't forget that passports are not only required by occasional travelers leaving the country once in a while, it's also basically a tax on emigrants who need the damn thing to put their visa/get their residence permit somewhere else). –  Relaxed Oct 8 '13 at 10:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 36 down vote accepted

The simple answer is that it's because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - the global organisation that is responsible for settings standards for passports - recommends that they should be valid for no more than 10 years.

For example, the ICAO "Guide for Assessing Security of Handling and Issuance of Travel Documents" states that :

Passport Validity Period


Recommended Practice 3.16 - Contracting States should normally provide that such passports be valid for a period of at least five years…Note 1 — In consideration of the limited durability of documents and the changing appearance of the passport holder over time, a validity period of not more than ten years is recommended

Of course the question then becomes why does ICAO have such a requirement!

In addition to the obvious reason that the biometric data on the passport (at a minimum, the photo) will be out of date after a period of time, the primary reason for expiring passports is likely to be that it allows the underlying technology to change without there being too many legacy passports in circulation.

For example, most countries started implementing "Machine Readable Passports" in the 1980's. Given a maximum expiry of 10 years, that meant that by the year 2000 it could be guaranteed that people from most countries had an MRP, and thus countries could start to enforce their use - such as how the US did in the mid-2000's. If passports had a 20+ year expiry, then even today there wouldn't be a guarantee that people would have MRPs.

The same is true for "electronic" passports. For example, Australia started issuing these in 2005, which means by the end of 2015 countries will be able to enforce that Australian passports must be electronic.

Expiring passports also reduces the number of stolen/forged/etc passports in circulation - both due to the expiry of those that are in circulation, but also by enforcing newer anti-forgery standards for new passports.

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I'd say the last paragraph (expiring forged passports) is the most likely explanation, unless passports had an indefinite lifetime before technological changes started happening with passports. –  Andrew Grimm Oct 10 '13 at 22:29
-1 I do not know why this answer was upvoted,it is totally wrong. I deal with ICAO annexes a lot and I am familiar with it. The first statement of your answer is wrong, ICAO (annex 9 - Facilitation) section 3.5.4 says: "Contracting States should issue passports with an initial period of validity of at least five years." There is no mention of 10 years as you stated. Also, this rule is mentioned under the "Recommended Practices" which is not compulsory for countries to follow,therefore there are countries that issue passports for 3 years and some more than 10 years in some cases like UK. –  Nean Der Thal Oct 12 '13 at 1:22
Thank you HaLaBi for your feedback. I have modified the word "must" to "should" to cover you point that the ICAO "recommends" validity of no more than 10 years as opposed to strictly enforcing it. –  Doc Oct 12 '13 at 5:37
Just as notice: my father got passport in 2004 and it is valid until 2057 (year when will 100 year from his birth) –  valodzka Oct 14 '13 at 17:37

First, the answer that states that passports expire because of ICAO rules is wrong, ICAO annex 9 (Facilitation) section 3.5.4 regarding passports is:

3.5.4 Recommended Practice.— Contracting States should issue passports with an initial period of validity of at least five years, valid for an unlimited number of journeys and for all countries, except in special circumstances.

and section 3.5.5:

3.5.5 Recommended Practice.— Contracting States should institute simple procedures for the renewal or replacement of passports and grant the same period of validity for the new or renewed passport as for the initial issue.

So, there is no global limitation of the passport validity, there is a recommendation of 5 years initial validity. There are some countries issue passports for 3 years, some other issue passports with a validity that exceeds 10 years. It totally depends on the country, still most of them are following ICAO recommendations and issue passports of 5 years.

The reasons are:

  • As in driving licenses, national IDs and other photo IDs, people's looks change over time. So a fresh photo is required every few years to keep things up to date.

  • For some countries there are the security measures, the longer the passport design stays the same, the bigger the chance of fraud is.

  • Economic reasons, making more jobs. Renewing passports is not free, the money for the passports are usually much more than the actual cost of passport while there is another recommendation by ICAO regarding this but few countries follow that:

    3.5.6 Recommended Practice.— If any fee is charged for the issue or renewal of a passport, the amount of such fee should not exceed the cost of the operation.

  • finally, ICAO recommends the renewal of passports every few years, which is recommended to be five years as mentioned above.

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You have quoted a single document. Numerous other ICAO documents recommend a maximum 10 year validity, such as "Machine Readable Travel Documents" (Part 1, Volume 2, Section 2.2), and "Guide for Assessing Security of Handling and Issuance of Travel Documents" (section 6.4.2). Whilst it is true that these are "Recommendations", I'm sure someone like yourself who "deal[s] with ICAO annexes a lot" will know that a recommendation such as this would normally only be ignored if there was an extremely good reason to do so. –  Doc Oct 12 '13 at 5:44
+1 for citing relevant documentation and providing some nuances but I would think the distinction between “recommending” and actually mandating is not as absolute as you make it to be (it's international law anyway, most countries violate it everyday without serious consequences, same things for technical norms…). Yet, those type of rules do matter and it's still one of the reasons passports have limitations (whereas drivers' license often do/did not, incidentally) even if the obligation is not as strong as Doc initial answer would have suggested. –  Relaxed Oct 12 '13 at 6:17
Can sombody please tell the Australian government about 3.5.6? Or if it really does cost $350 bucks to produce a passport (with more pages) then how can I get a job there? The passports don't seem to be made of precious materials so I can only assume they pay very high wages to their employees. –  hippietrail Oct 12 '13 at 9:23

The biggest reason. Your appearance changes with age, so the fresh picture is needed.

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Also, it is a way to make more jobs and give people salaries... governments need that. –  Nean Der Thal Oct 8 '13 at 0:06
$150 a pop even for 300000000 people every 10 years isn't much. :) –  Karlson Oct 8 '13 at 1:31
Wow I dream of such cheap passports! –  hippietrail Oct 8 '13 at 3:03
@Karlson not only passports, a bit from passports and a bit from many other things will eventually make some good $. –  Nean Der Thal Oct 8 '13 at 3:19
@Karlson 10 years? Most countries I know require renewal every 4 years, and there are countries where you need to get a new one for every trip abroad (effectively they're exit visa). And $450 million a year is nothing to sneeze, for the city councils that get it (especially small towns) it can be a nice addition to their budget. And as HaLaBi says, when you add driver's licenses and other expiring permits and licenses it all adds up. –  jwenting Oct 8 '13 at 5:58

In addition to the other answers, there may be laws local to the issuing countries.

For example, Germany prohibits creating unique identification numbers for people. If the passport or ID card number would remain unchanged for a greater amount of time, this number could be used as an identification number (as citizens get at most one ID card and two passports), so documents with new, unrelated numbers have to be issued every ten years, and any documentation about the old number deleted from government databases as soon as the document is marked invalid (non-government databases are forbidden from storing the number at all).

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This is incorrect. All residents of Germany have a tax identification number (Steueridentifikationsnummer) which remains throughout the entire life. It has been disputed if the introduction of such a numbering system violates the German constitution, but all court rulings have been in favour of the system. –  Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Oct 8 '13 at 11:19
@Tor-EinarJarnbjo Good luck trying to shut Pandora's Box after the fact. ~80 years ago when the US assigned everyone a number for Social Security (govt retirement program) they forbade its use as an identifier for anything else. Now it's defacto required when signing up for almost anything financial since it's needed to report tax information. –  Dan Neely Oct 8 '13 at 13:17

There are many, many reasons to limit the validity for passports. Just for completion as already called out:

  • Money: As a monopoly you are guaranteed to charge insidious prices and get the revenue.
  • Biometric features: Getting older, growing beards, glasses etc. could change you so much that you may be nearly unrecognizable.
  • Counterfeiting: Passport security could be enhanced repeatedly.

Now a passport itself is mostly unnecessary for a citizen inside a country, it is a travel and immigration document. Therefore it has useful purposes to watch, identify and control people who are moving outside their country.

Further reasons why a passport with unlimited time would be a disadvantage for countries:

  • Rare, but possible: New countries appearing and old countries disappearing. The authorities need to update the information.

  • Your government want you to get back to your home country: Sometimes a citizen does things which a government does not like very much so they have the urgent need to speak to you. Bobby Fischer spat on the US embargo in Yugoslavia and even worse, he did not pay his taxes. So the USA revoked his passport and Fischer would have been extradited sooner or later from Japan if Iceland did not jump in and gave Fischer an Icelandic passport.

  • Your government is convinced that you if you leave your country you are up to no good. Germany revoked the passport of Horst Mahler, a right-wing ex-lawyer, to prevent him to travel to a holocaust conference in Iran. It is also used for known hooligans to prevent traveling.

An unlimited passport makes it much easier in both cases to hide your papers or slip through controls.

  • Your government wants to know if you are alive. And where you are (for taxes, retirement provisions). If someone who left the country does not renew their passport, they know something is wrong.

  • The foreign country thinks that a person causes trouble, but they have no legal means against him. Limited passports make it much easier to extradite an undesired individual.

  • The foreign country has less problems to detect people who try to stay in the country for a long time.

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The last three points seem somewhat speculative. In fact, most countries don't impose taxes on nationals who reside abroad and won't chase you to pay a retirement pension even if you are entitled to it. Furthermore, having an invalid passport makes extradition more (and not less) difficult. I don't think passport expiration has much of a role in controlling foreigners; visa, residence permits, mandatory registration, police controls are much more important for that. Countries have many legal means to deal with foreigners causing trouble and create new ones as they see fit. –  Relaxed Oct 9 '13 at 19:37
If you don't have a visa/right to stay in a country, having an expired passport is really a detail. If on the other hand you are entitled to stay (say because you have several nationalities), you most likely have no obligation to renew your other passport. Beside, to even know about it, the host country must have found you through a random check or some other means to track you as renewing passports is something that's done without their knowledge in consulates. –  Relaxed Oct 9 '13 at 19:39
Expiry and revocation are completely separate. Revocation, by definition, occurs to a valid, unexpired passport -- if Fischer or Mahler's passport had expired, their governments wouldn't have needed to revoke them to prevent travel! A passport that didn't expire could be revoked just as easily as an expiring one. –  David Richerby Feb 12 '14 at 18:26

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