As per the news, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has had his passport revoked by the United States Government.

From the article:

It was not immediately clear how Snowden was able to travel,

However, he was able to fly from Hong Kong to Russia, and apparently plans to continue on to Latin America / Cuba.

With a revoked passport, how is one legally able to travel internationally??

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    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 15:48
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    Why do you think he traveled legally? I mean, if he had booked a plane under his real name, it would have been a lot easier for any agency to locate him - it would simply be common sense to travel under a false name - in which case, it would be necessary to also obtain documents that corroborate that false name. Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 15:54
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    @JeanHominal, the question wasn't whether he did it legally or illegally, it was IF one of us had our passports revoked, how would we be able to travel legally?. (And as per some of the answers, it appears he may well be travelling 'legally'!)
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 15:56
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    I am pretty certain, the US government would provide Mr. Snowden transportation at taxpayer expense from almost anywhere in the world to the US. Travel documents would not be a problem.
    – emory
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 17:59
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    @JeanHominal: traveling under false name would be a crime anywhere in the world. Leaking information from NSA is a crime only in USA.
    – vartec
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 12:48

10 Answers 10


Very simple:

From the US State Department Website last sentence.

A federal or state law enforcement agency may request the denial of a passport on several regulatory grounds under 22 CFR 51.70 and 51.72. The principal law enforcement reasons for passport denial are a federal warrant of arrest, a federal or state criminal court order, a condition of parole or probation forbidding departure from the United States (or the jurisdiction of the court), or a request for extradition. The HHS child support database and the Marshals Service WIN database are checked automatically for entitlement to a passport. Denial or revocation of a passport does not prevent the use of outstanding valid passports.

So if you have a passport that is valid. Until you're in the country that shares information with country revoking the passport and chooses to comply with this revocation the only country you're not going to be able to enter would be the country issuing the passport.

  • Actually, if you had a passport from them, I would expect you to be a citizen of that country, and so you would have right of return. You would need to probe your identity, but the "artificially expired" passport would probably serve for that. Your main problem would be that once you entered the country that issued the passport, you would be unable to leave it again (and most likely for a case like Snowden's, be led directly to the nearest jail).
    – Ángel
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 1:34

Cuban refugees in the 1960s who were given US residency did not have access to US passports until they became citizens. They were unable to obtain Cuban passports. They were instead issued a passport-like re-entry document by the United States which they used for travel to third countries. If Ecuador or another country issued such a document Snowden could travel on that. Ultimately it is up to the receiving nation to decide whether to admit the traveler, passport or not. Currently, if a refugee reaches U.S. soil he can ask for asylum even though his method of entry was irregular.

After WWII, many refugees were issued non-passport travel documents by the Vatican. There are other examples. There is a "World Citizen" organization which claims their passport is recognized by many countries.

Before 9/11 it was easy to enter Canada with a driver's license and no other proof of citizenship. At the California/Tijuana border, it was similarly the case that if you did not "look Mexican" you were waved through, especially if you were returning on a Friday night after a bout of drinking.

So this is far from unprecedented.

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    Won't airlines refuse travellers who cannot identify themselves?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 14:35
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    @gerrit How do you mean cannot identify themselves?
    – Karlson
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 14:48
  • If they don't have a passport, they can't prove their identification and the airline won't let them board the plane for safety reasons?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 15:06
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    @gerrit The refugee travel document serves as an identification for international travel or a temporary travel document. Also places like Russia etc have what's known as internal passport, which people are usually required to carry. Not sure if same holds true Cuba but usually there is something.
    – Karlson
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 16:32
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    @gerrit The laws of most countries state that people refused entry at the airport must be returned by the airline that brought them there. In addition, border authorities will stick them with a fine. Most airlines will try to avoid carrying passengers that will be refused at the border.
    – emory
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 1:27

When a travelling companion of mine had their passport stolen in South Africa, the NZ High Commission issued a ETD (Emergency Travel Document). This was a substitute for a passport.

However, if the government has revoked a passport, they're unlikely to issue such a document.

So then you're left with a few other methods.

In some places, national ID cards are fine to travel internationally - including the Economic Community of West African States, most of the EU (and some nearby countries) with the Schengen Area, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, and Mercosur (in South America).

US Citizens can travel to Puerto Rico with just a photo ID.

According to Wikileaks, Edward Snowden has been issued with a type of emergency refugee document by Ecuador. Several countries issue similar documents, including the UK and even the US, who has a document called an I-94, which many other countries will recognise as a valid form of ID for transiting to the US. Even the International Red Cross is capable of issuing similar documents, although it's up to each country to decide whether to accept these.

Finally, if you're the head of state, like Queen Elizabeth, you may not even need a passport.

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    Maybe Queen Elizabeth can get away with it, but David Cameron daren't risk it! - telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10094175/… Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 17:21
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    The US I-94 is an entry permit - a card issued to a non-US citizen when they enter the US (and is surrendered when they leave). It isn't any form of ID, and is not issued before arrival.
    – Rob Hoare
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 21:32
  • @RobHoare - from the linked article at the end of my answer: "A document called an I-94 is issued in lieu of a passport and travel to the US is arranged for each one. "Let's say we're taking people from Malaysia and they have to stop in Hong Kong before they can get to LA," she says. "Hong Kong recognises these are US travel documents and lets them through."
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 23:19
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    @MarkMayo - I'm not aware of anything in an official source which says an I-94 can be issued overseas or can be used for travel. The article may be confused with first the issue of an emergency travel document, THEN the I-94 (arrival-departure record) is issued upon arrival in the US. "When you are admitted to the United States you will receive a Form I-94 containing a refugee admission stamp. " - uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/…
    – Rob Hoare
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 3:38
  • @RobHoare - ahh! An important point of distinction. Thanks for the clarification, always good to learn :)
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 3:56

All countries have the sovereign right to determine who may enter their territory and what kind of documentation they will require. As an example, EU citizens do not require passports to travel within the EU, even though they are crossing international boundaries.

Ultimately, it's up to the countries of origin and destination of travel to decide what is acceptable documentation. In addition, any country may choose to provide travel documentation to someone, as can some non-government organisations such as the UN.

  • Anyone can travel within the EU by land without a passport - not just EU citizens - there are no border checks as such.
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:07
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    @MarkMayo A non-EU citizen will still need their passport to be present inside an EU country. At the very least, they'll need it at the point of entry into the EU from a non-EU country. The lack of internal passport controls (for the most part) does not excuse a non-EU national from having the required travel documentation and visas. Commented May 12, 2015 at 7:00
  • @MarkMayo not entirely true. For example there are border controls on the land boarder between spain and gibralter. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:51

He was (or still is) in the international transfer part of the airport, which means he didn't go through Russian customs, nor would he have to go through Russian customs to board the plane. Thus it isn't relevant that his passport is revoked. At the gate it's only used as a photo ID, to verify if the person boarding plane is same as the name on the ticket. AFAIK, at that point it's not cross referenced with overseas databases of revoked passports.

Of course he'll have to pass the customs at his destination, but he's going to ask for political asylum, so again it doesn't matter much that his passport has been revoked.


Interestingly, the main purposes of passports is to control who leaves a country and to provide some assurance that you can come back. So the reason countries demand foreigners hold valid passports is to make sure they will be able to leave after their visit and could be easily deported should the need arise. I believe that's also the reason for rules preventing entry to many countries with a soon-to-expire passport.

Without passport, local authorities would typically first need to ascertain their nationality and have the relevant consulate confirm it and issue a laissez-passer. That's why desperate people sometimes try to get rid of their passport or hide it in the hope of defeating immediate deportation (and occasionally also to claim another nationality to get a better shot at asylum).

Therefore, historically, the main reason countries invalidate passports is to prevent people from coming back. For example, during a short time on the night of November 9, 1989, border guards were instructed to invalidate the passport of anybody who wanted to leave the GDR with a special stamp (they quickly gave up and just let people through). In less dramatic situations, people also often have to surrender their passport to make it more difficult to leave, e.g. following a court order.

None of this seems very relevant to Mr. Snowden's situation as he probably does not want to come back to the US for the time being. Invalidating his US passport first and foremost prevents him from doing just that.

However, as long as he holds onto it, it still would look very “valid” to any third country, no matter what US law has to say about it, as there is no legal framework to prevent people from traveling between third countries, no global database of invalid passports and no other mechanism to enforce this supposed “invalidity” (there is an Interpol database of stolen and lost travel documents but it's far from universal).

Once you are stuck somewhere with an expired passport and no hope of getting help from your own country's consular network, your main recourse is to seek another nationality. Failing that, you could try to obtain some sort of travel document from a third country. Several have been created for refugees or stateless people who cannot get a passport from their home countries (Nansen passport, 1951 Convention travel document, 1954 Convention travel document…). They would typically be issued by the country where a person usually resides but, unlike a passport, do not imply that the holder is a citizen. Alternatively, if a country is prepared to grant you entry but not to give you another status right away, you could get a laissez-passer (from the destination country) valid for this one trip.

Of course, none of this really matters for Mr. Snowden. At this stage, it's a safe bet that any decision regarding his fate would be taken at the ministerial level, on a purely political basis.


Your ability to travel between countries (and sometimes within countries) depends on the willingness of the countries in question to allow you to enter and/or leave them.
A passport is one document often required to do one and/or the other, but there's AFAIK no globally active treaty (iow one that every country in existence has ratified) to require one.
Thus, any country may at its discretion allow or deny entry to anyone, with or without a passport from any country (including its own...).
So yes, Snowden and indeed anyone else can legally travel between a pair of countries without a valid passport, IF the countries in question don't demand he has a valid passport to do so.
International refugees can exist because of this. If someone on the run from his government could not gain entry to another country simply because his own country has refused or invalidated his passport, it'd be impossible for refugees to ever flee their governments.


This is possible in most of Europe. The earliest example I know of, is the Nordic Passport Union from 1952, which allowed citizens of the Nordic countries to travel, work and immigrate freely in these countries, without carrying a passport or requiring a VISA.

Since 1995, this has been expanded further, with the Schengen agreement, which removes the borders within the area, allowing citizens of to cross the internal borders without going through a passport control (however, you are required to carry some sort of proof of citizenship, as there are periodic checks).

There are still passport checks in airports, however, as they often simply have an "international" terminal. They have a few gates you can walk through, some of which say "Citizens of EEA countries", "EU and Schengen passports" or something similar, which (if it's even manned) will more or less just glance at your passport and wave you through.

If you still have your physical passport, it is likely they will let you through anyway, unless they actually run a check on it and the country share information with the country of issue. Most often they are simply checking if the passport is genuine and valid, what nationality you have, and whether or not you have a visa, if needed.

It is also possible for a traveller to fly all around the world without a physical passport, as long as he/she doesn't leave the international terminal at the airport and thus need to pass through a passport control.

Research tells me, that since 1923, a similar concept has been in place in the British Isles, called Common Travel Area.

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    Actually, I believe the requirement in the Schengen area is simply proof of citizenship. A passport is one obvious way to prove citizenship, but not the only one. Some countries' ID cards apparently include information about citizenship (though I can't name specific examples).
    – user
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 21:00
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    In fact, Schengen, free movement, and passport/ID requirements are unrelated. It was possible to travel between EU countries (and some others) with only a national ID card (for countries that issue those) long before Schengen, it remains formally necessary to have some way to prove your citizenship now even if there are no systematic border checks. It was also possible to work and move freely (a much more substantial right than merely traveling without a passport) in the Benelux (created 1944) and the EEC (created 1957).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 15:22
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    Also, Schengen flights are often (should?) be segregated from non-Schengen flights. When that's the case, there is no passport check on landing whatsoever. The EU vs. non-EU lanes stem from another requirement of the Schengen agreement, which define two types of checks for external borders: simple (i.e. ascertain identity and citizenship) and thorough (check visa status, purpose of stay, etc.). EU citizens are not supposed to be asked about the purpose of their stay and this is also the case outside the Schengen area (e.g. UK).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 15:26
  • This lane is for all EU/EEA citizens even people from outside the Schengen area (UK, Ireland and new members) or the EU (Switzerland, Norway).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 15:30
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    Incidentally, with respect to the original question, these agreement make it more, not less, difficult to escape your country's control. If the US claims to invalidate your passport, Russia wouldn't automatically know about it nor be constrained to care in any way. OTOH, there are list of stolen or invalid documents shared between Schengen countries, a database of people to watch if they try to cross an external border and a separate mechanism (the European Arrest Warrant) to have someone arrested with very little trouble compared to a regular extradition.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 15:35

If you have a second passport from another country it is easy and legal to travel on that. Another good reason to get a second passport, if you can.

Other reasons are getting visa-free travel on one passport when your first one doesn't allow it or avoiding "reciprocity fees" that some countries (such as Brazil) charge US and other passport holders but do not charge EU passport holders.

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    Another reason to get at least one grandparent with another nationality if you don't already have one too! Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:34

In order not to be responsible the return flight, some airlines on some flights check the passengers’ passports and travel visa routinely. I believe most transatlantic flights to the US check passports at least.

One would expect a certain, perhaps considerable delay, in finding out that a passport had been revoked, especially if the holder was you and me rather than Snowden.

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