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  • Jes Bellamy

What's the Problem? Why Most Americans Don't Have Passports (and it's mostly BIPOC communities)



If there is one thing I can't do, it is imagine my life without my passport. However, while I may feel this way, I know millions of others in America don't. Despite the fact that passports are more common today, research shows that most Americans still do not have them.

One trip that prompted me to write about passport allocations was when I went on my first cruise in almost 15 years, and one of the ladies who checked us in mentioned how about 1500 of the passengers on board did not have a passport.

Now, unlike international travel by air, with cruises, you only sometimes need a passport depending on the cruise you are doing, but it is always recommended to bring one just in case. Besides that point, the lady who checked us in also mentioned how she was shocked and said it was the most she had ever seen get on a ship without a passport. So, as a result, I began wondering why people do not have them.


According to the U.S. Department of State, there are about 152 million valid passports in the USA today. Additionally, we have a population of almost 332 million, meaning less than half of the U.S. population has a passport. Some may say that this is because Americans are opposed to change, but there may be more to this.


Covid 19 did take a big hit on the travel industry; however, it has almost fully recovered. Considering that, a survey by NTTO found that traveling overseas has increased by over 80 percent since 2019. Additionally, international travel spending was around 109 million dollars for U.S. citizens in 2022, while domestic travel spending was considerably higher at almost 1 trillion dollars, showing that Americans partake in domestic travel more than international which leads to not needing a passport. In addition, there are other possible reasons why only about half of America have a passport. A few are listed below.


Cost


Ultimately, the cost of a passport is a substantial determining factor in whether people will obtain one. A passport can cost $130 for adults or $100 for someone 16 and under. There are also fees, such as an acceptance fee ($35) and an expedited shipping fee ($60) if you need your passport quickly. There are passport cards that are cheaper, but passport cards cannot be used for international air travel. So, Americans who don't make a substantial amount of money may have difficulty attaining a passport.

Hard to Get


Most people are put off by the hassle of getting a passport. You have to get the form, get your passport photos, potentially go to USPS and get an appt, etc., It can take 4 - 6 weeks to get your passport. It's a lot of work!


Cultural Norms

In contrast to other cultures, Americans travel less than others. We are a melting pot, but most Americans dislike change and are reluctant to step outside their comfort zones, decreasing the need for passports.


Afraid to Travel


In addition to norms, it is common for Americans to fear experiencing a new culture. The lack of a passport can also result from a fear of flying and language barriers. This could prevent people from traveling, as they may feel uncomfortable, lost, or unwelcomed.

Work


Americans have less PTO (Paid Time Off) and vacation time than others. In addition, like others, they may have less time to give to traveling abroad due to work and other life responsibilities.


Economic and Demographic Disparities


Significant economic, racial, and regional disparities prevent people from traveling outside the U.S. and getting a passport. While politics have no bearing on who holds the most passports, Americans in the south and midwest own fewer passports than those living on the northeast and west coast.


The states with the fewest passports include: Wyoming, North Dakota, Vermont, South Dakota, and West Virginia (In that order). The states with the most passports include: California, Texas, New York, Florida, and New Jersey (In that order).

In addition, the possession of a valid passport increases dramatically with income. Upper-middle and upper-class individuals are more likely to have a passport than lower-middle and lower-class individuals. Higher education is also affected in this way. People with only a high school education or less are more likely to not have a passport, while more than 50 percent with a college degree currently have a valid one.

As for race and passports, people of color own fewer passports than white people due to wealth and education disparities; for instance, White individuals are far wealthier than Blacks or Latinos.


In addition, according to Statista, in 2021, America Indian/Alaska Native and Black people living in the United States were living below the poverty line more than White and Asian populations. In terms of the middle class, an article on Brookings states that in 2019, "the middle class was 59 percent white, 12 percent Black, 18 percent Hispanic, and ten percent "other." As for education, people in lower-income communities (primarily Blacks and Hispanics) graduate from high school at lower rates than White and Asian students.


Basically, this economic and educational data proves that Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and sometimes Asian populations are less likely to own a passport than White individuals. The question is, how does this get fixed? Well, that's a topic for another time since so many injustices hinder specific demographics from getting a passport and traveling.


Ultimately, passports allow you to experience different cultures and learn from them. Yes, they are expensive, but they are worth investing in for the future. To this day, I have friends and family members who don't have passports (for many reasons), and I'll tell you what I always tell them "this world was given to us, so we might as well explore it and enjoy it…Right?



To apply for a passport, click here.





References


Brit on the Move. Surprising Reasons Why Americans Don’t Travel. https://britonthemove.com/why-americans-dont-travel/

Bruenig, M. (2019). Wealth Inequality Across Class and Race in 5 Graphs.


Ellsworth, D., Harding, E., Law, J., and Pinder, D. (2022). Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/racial-and-ethnic-equity-in-us-higher-education


Frankovic, K. (2021). Only one-third of Americans have a valid US passport.


Goldstein, M. (2017). The Travel Biz Problem No One Talks About: Americans Don't Have Passports. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelgoldstein/2017/10/26/the-travel-biz-problem-no-one-talks-about-americans-dont-have-passports/?sh=7ecaf3da70f7


NTTO.(2022). Annual change in number of United States residents traveling overseas from 2002 to 2021.


Peck, S. (2022). The truth about American tourists (and why you hear them a mile off).


Pullium, C., Reeves, R, & Shiro, A. (2020). The middle class is already racially diverse.


Statista. (2021). Poverty rate in the United States in 2021, by ethnic group. https://www.statista.com/statistics/200476/us-poverty-rate-by-ethnic-group/


Statista (2021). Travel and Tourism in the U.S.


U.S. Department of State (2023). Reports and Statistics.


US Travel Association. (2022). Total direct travel spending in the United States from 2019 to 2021, by type of traveler. https://www-statista-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/statistics/301991/direct-economic-impact-of-travel-spending-by-industry-us/

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