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  • Writer's pictureMaria Matskevich

How did the concept of visas come about?

It might come as a surprise to many that the modern concept of passports and visas that we have all grown accustomed to is relatively new. Especially in the context of the world’s entire history. Given the immense effects that these documents have on the freedom of movement, it’s important to understand where the immigration system originated and who came up with the concept of visas.

Why was the passport created?

Source: Unsplash

To understand how visas came about, we must first explore the origin of the passport. After all, it’s precisely the document that determines whether you might require a visa for your travels at all.

The first mentions of a document equivalent to a passport can be traced to the biblical era. However, the modern day booklet that we’re all used to now became particularly widespread not too long ago, just after the end of World War I. Before then passports weren’t necessarily a must for international travel.

According to the National Geographic, it was The League of Nations that was tasked with maintaining international peace after the horrors of the war and ended up campaigning in favor of a document that could identify the origins of a person.

“Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others.”

Shortly after, the U.S. government felt that there was a growth of foreigners coming into the country, and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 as well as the Immigration Act of 1924 were passed to limit the influx of immigrants. Thus, solidifying the necessity for passports and setting the stage for the system we know today.

There are, of course, benefits to living in a society where passports are a norm. In his book “The Invention of the Passport”, John C. Torpey pointed out that the advantages primarily pertain to security. Other scholars often express similar views even while criticizing the lack of freedom of movement and open borders. In any case, passports quickly became the norm as a result of the need to control the coming and going of people.

“The contemporary international passport is primarily an expression of the attempt by modern nation-states to assert their exclusive monopoly over the legal means of movement.”

Evolution of the Visa regime

As the presence of passports solidified, so did the prevalence of visas.

In the U.S., the Immigration Act of 1924 took effect on July 1st of that year and required all non-US citizens to showcase a visa when applying for admission into the country. Just like now, the documents were meant to be acquired prior to departure at the Embassies or Consulates abroad.

Then came World War II. Once it was over, countries across the world understood the importance of helping Europe reconstruct and recover. Thus, the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) was established in 1948 so that aid could be distributed. In 1960, it was replaced by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which consisted of 18 European countries, Canada, and the U.S. It still exists today and works to support growth among members.

In Europe, other crucial immigration-related events were happening. In 1944, Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands established the Benelux Union together. In simple terms, it is a politico-economic cooperation between the three countries that was created to simplify trade.

In 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed to create the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community. Similar to the Benelux, it aimed to facilitate economic integration among member states — Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and West Germany.

Despite the expansion of the union, there were still some difficulties for people and goods to cross borders between nations. Documents had to be checked which naturally slowed the entire process. That was when some members began advocating for open borders between member states and true free-flow of movement. Many were hesitant and didn’t think that such an agreement would last. As we now know, it did.

Signing of the Schengen Treaty in 1985.

Source: BBC

On June 14th 1985, the Schengen Agreement was signed and the Schengen Area was established. Yet, it was only ten years later, in 1995, that it actually became effective and the free-movement between member states truly began.

Around the same time, in 1993, the European Union (EU) was established and the EEC was incorporated into it. Thus, creating the European travel landscape we are familiar with today.


Currently, academics from various disciplines are interested in studying immigration, open borders, and the effects of freedom of movement between countries. Despite the seeming trend towards globalization, many criticize the current state of the world. Some question the implications on human rights of having closed borders for certain nations. Others, like Bryan Caplan, focus on the economical benefits of open borders.

What remains clear is that the advantages of free movement are primarily spread between the Western world. In fact, a study completed in 2015 found that while citizens of OECD and “rich” countries have gained mobility rights in the 40 years since 1969, those from other regions observed much fewer advances in travel freedoms.

Source: Taylor & Francis Online


As you can see, the concept of visas and passports is relatively new, especially in the form that we know today. Additionally, it is evident that the current state of immigration and free-movement laws doesn’t benefit all countries equally. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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