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As we know, a passport enables its holder to travel abroad, and certifies the holder's personal identity.

In terms of ownership, it's less commonly known that passports belong to the country that issued them, and not to yourself... unlike driving licenses, national ID cards, etc.

I am curious about the reason. Why does it belong to the country? Is there an exception in any country in passport ownership?

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    "unlike driving licenses, national ID cards, etc." In many countries, they are also the property of the government, supposedly providing a basis to demand the return of these documents to the government.
    – xngtng
    Mar 6 at 18:32
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    @xngtng and in federated countries (like the US, Germany, India, etc), your license or ID could very well be owned by the state you are a citizen of.
    – PC Luddite
    Mar 8 at 3:02
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    neither of the other documents you mention belong to you. You are merely the holder of those documents, just as with a passport.
    – jwenting
    Mar 8 at 13:04
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    @PCLuddite While what you say is generally true, in Germany all those documents are issued by the Federal government as they are Federal responsibility.
    – Jan
    Mar 8 at 14:04
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    @Jan I wasn't aware of that (not going to pretend I'm even close to an expert on German government), but from what I understand, German states are more integrated than the US, so that makes sense.
    – PC Luddite
    Mar 9 at 16:51

5 Answers 5

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It is more or less a legal detail to simplify a few procedures:

In most countries you are not necessarily entitled to be issued a passport. For example pending criminal charges or financial debt may be reasons good enough to refuse a person from being issued a passport to prevent the person from fleeing prosecution or debt collection. The same reasons can also cause already issued passports to be revoked and withdrawn with the requirement for the holder to return and surrender an already issued passport. This procedure is simplified if the issuing authority or state is the legal owner of the actual physical document. In some countries, the issuing state is also considered the legal owner of other documents, like e.g. driver licenses, as these can also be revoked and withdrawn.

Although not always honored, having the issuing state as legal owner of a passport also implicates according to international law, that foreign states are not allowed to seize or withdraw a passport without violating the property interests of the issuing state. In practice, it is however not particularly uncommon that foreign passports are seized in connection with for example refugee applications or forced removals and deportations.

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  • Thanks for a comprehensible answer. Does it mean, there is no country, of which passport an individual is an owner instead? Mar 6 at 19:46
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    @NikolasCharalambidis No. For example in Norwegian legislation, it does not seem to be defined at all who is considered to be the legal owner of the passport. Mar 6 at 20:22
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Because a country needs to be able to restrict what you do with a passport.

For example, they do not want you to be able to sell a passport, alter passport details, replace the photo with one of someone else, copy it, etc. While doing those things is often covered by fraud, you would usually have to be able to prove criminal intent. If the passport belongs to the state then they can make rules about what you can do with it, and not have anybody try to claim that "the passport is mine so I can do what I want with it".

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  • 2
    You own your car, but you cannot change its color without doing some paper work... Mar 6 at 21:53
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    @NeanDerThal, where I live, I can repaint my car. I cannot switch the tires for similar-looking ones that have not been certified for that model.
    – o.m.
    Mar 7 at 5:49
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    Most of those activities are prohibited for paper money, even though you do own your money. Prohibition of resale is probably the main distinguishing factor. Mar 7 at 7:13
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    @NeanDerThal I can repaint my car, saw it in half and add another 1 meter to it, mount engine on the roof, and anything else I want. I just can't drive it on public roads, unless I do a lot of paperwork with the state, legalizing changes I made. Mar 7 at 7:34
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    @DmitryGrigoryev That's not necessarily true. In the US at least, it is illegal to destroy federal currency because the government wants sole control of how much money is in circulation.
    – Andrew Ray
    Mar 7 at 12:46
7

Basically because no one may seriously testify to the worthiness of their own character or bona fides - in regard to travel as much as for anything else.

Passports - if you ever read them - say something like:

" . . . . The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Country requests all whom it may concern to allow the bearer, a citizen of Country to pass freely and without hindrance and to afford the bearer all necessary assistance and protection."

Even in the old days before international terrorism and all sorts of international crime, the word of a body appointed competent authority would be worth far far more than the word of a individual speaking on their own behalf.

Since the competent authority gives the undertaking on the passport, it is surely theirs to revoke if its terms are violated.

Hence it is their "property" but in the holder's trust for safekeeping.

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    "Old days, before international terrorism..." when was that, exactly? It could be said that to the Ageans, the Phoenicians were terrorists....
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 7 at 13:19
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    @CGCampbell I think you know what I mean all the same.
    – Trunk
    Mar 7 at 13:26
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    I agree, there have been no times without international terrorism. Maybe you can adjust your text to something that is logical and/or a date you feel right.
    – Willeke
    Mar 7 at 17:50
  • I think there are plenty of "words of an appointed body" that are simply handed over to the recipient and become their property. I would think, for example, that my birth certificate is my property. Mar 9 at 1:34
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    I don't know the law in this but I would think that what we hold as our birth certificate is simply a copy of what the Registry of Births, Marriages & Deaths hold about our birth.
    – Trunk
    Mar 9 at 13:02
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In Germany the administrative regulation detailing the application of the passport law, in German here, states:

1.4.2 Pass bleibt Eigentum der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
Der Pass bleibt auch nach Aushändigung an die antragstellende Person Eigentum der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Daraus folgt nach allgemein anerkannten völkerrechtlichen Grundsätzen, dass andere Staaten über Pässe der Bundesrepublik Deutschland nicht verfügungsberechtigt sind. Dies gilt auch in umgekehrter Weise hinsichtlich der Nationalpässe anderer Staaten.

("The passport stays property of the Federal Republic of Germany even after being handed out. Consequently, according to the generally accepted principles of international law, other nations have no power of disposal over passports of the Federal Republic of Germany. This applies in turn equally to passports of other nations.")

I think this is the main rationale: A passport is of central importance to the welfare of its holder. In essence, it links an individual to their government which in turn is entitled and obliged to render support abroad. This link and authorization is protected by the authority of the German government by making the government, not the holder, the owner.

(Other reasons suggested, such as the right to revoke it or restrict its use, don't seem compelling because government ownership is not a requirement for restrictions or revocations.)

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unlike driving licenses, national ID card

If you own something, you are able to sell it. Can you sell your driving license to another person? Can you sell your national ID card to another person? (Legally, anyway!) If the answer is no, then you don't own it.

No country in the world allows this, so the premise of your question is fundamentally incorrect. Passports are issued by a country in the same way as all other formal documentation. At no point is any of this documentation a personal asset of yours.

Whether there is a mechanism for revoking or withdrawing any of that documentation would depend on the documentation and the country, of course. Driving licenses can often be revoked as punishment for unsafe driving. National identity cannot normally be revoked, although there are exceptional cases such as Shamima Begum. Regardless though, they are still not your property.

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    Can you sell your prescription medication?
    – lalala
    Mar 7 at 13:29
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    You can't sell your organs, either, but that doesn't mean you don't own them. You also can't sell loose cigarettes, despite having full ownership. A lack of ownership implies an inability to sell, but the inability to sell does not imply lack of ownership. Mar 7 at 13:55
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    @lalala People are allowed to sell prescription medication (albeit with suitable certification, sure). We call them pharmacists, or doctors. But no-one anywhere, in any country, ever, is allowed to sell a passport, driving license or national ID card.
    – Graham
    Mar 7 at 16:04
  • @NuclearHoagie In some countries you can sell your organs, and all health services pay money to acquire organs from other health services. In some you can buy loose cigarettes, and all cigarette companies can sell loose cigarettes to distributors/packagers. The existence of safeguards/authorisation on who sells to whom does not imply a general inability to sell, only a prohibition on a specific individual to sell. But legal sale of passports, driving licenses and national ID cards between any private individuals or organisations is flatly impossible in every country on Earth.
    – Graham
    Mar 7 at 16:13
  • @NuclearHoagie: There are at least a few countries where you don't own your own organs either (because they are not the kind of things that can be owned by anybody, period). The logic actually works the other way around: things that cannot have an owner cannot be sold, because selling implies an old and a new owner.
    – MSalters
    Mar 7 at 22:12

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