Jenni Young

Ready? Stamp. Go!


There are a vast array of images, objects, and tools designed to allow us to travel the world, both physically and imaginatively. Our passport, for example, facilitates entry to foreign countries, while at the same time contains stamps that are a record of places visited and a gateway to our memories of those trips.

This podcast was one of the products of the research on ‘non-travel‘ I undertook while completing my masters. Through interviews with designer Eddie Opara and travel photographer Kirsten Alana, I consider the design of passports as it relates to our ideas of travel and the ever-changing concept of national identity.



As background for the aBOVE I also wrote THE FOLLOWING – MA in Design Research assignment for Adam Harrison Levy (DEcember 2015):

The ‘Passport Nuisance’: Getting Visaed

The passport, although it dates as far back as 450BC, can be recognised in its modern format from the beginning of the 20th century. No longer simple letters of introduction, passports became formal identification documents with photos and descriptions of the bearer. It was a combination of the lingering wartime control of travel and the growing number of international tourists that led to the surge in number of passports issued by the U.S. Passport Division in the 1920s: 1.6 million compared with the 200,000 authorised in the decade before the First World War.

Despite their popularity, passports were seen as a symbol of the anxiety over documentation and identification at the time. Many hours were required to obtain the necessary documents to travel between two countries, and in doing so they were made to feel like criminals, a “souvenir of the persisting doubt, the official suspicion of your character.” They were labelled by newspapers and magazines as the “passport nuisance,” for the shock and complaints from the wealthy travelling class when they encountered the passport for the first time.

In the current climate of the Syrian refugee crisis and global fears over terrorism, the passport is once again a symbol of governmental distrust, individual privilege, and national identity. While they have become an accepted, standardised object globally, the formal procedure of having them stamped or ‘visaed’ in order to enter, exit, or remain in a country is still the true nuisance. Even Jules Verne’s globetrotting hero, Phileas Fogg, had to undergo the bothersome, mundane exercise of attaining a visa.

“If he is as shrewd as I think he is, consul, he will come.”
“To have his passport visaed?” asks the consul.
“Yes. Passports are only good for annoying honest folks, and aiding in the flight of rogues. I assure you it will be quite the thing for him to do; but I hope you will not visa the passport.”
“Why not? If the passport is genuine I have no right to refuse.”

Excerpt from “Chapter VII: Which once more demonstrates the uselessness of passports as aids to detectives” in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

In the 1920s, the visa became something that was stamped into your passport at every stage of the journey – an (unsuccessful) attempt to reduce the time involved in inspection. A 1922 New York Times article informed potential travellers that “the passport system gives employment to an army of officials who have become adepts in the art of using rubber stamps on documents with one hand and collecting fees with the other.”

Countries use stamps of different designs and inks of different colours to easily identify the various movements of people. Within the Schengen system, stamps have different icons to identify whether the individual entered/exited the country by plane, boat, train or road. Entry stamps are rectangular and have an arrow into a square, while exit stamps are rectangular with rounded corners and have an arrow out of a square. They also bear the country abbreviation within a circle of stars in the top left hand corner, the name of the entry/exit point at the bottom and the security code to which that particular stamp belongs, in black. In the middle, the date is marked in red with a two digit security code that is changed at least once a month.

Each element of a visa stamp is subject to change depending on the country’s system. Singapore, for example, uses different shaped stamps to signify the length of stay permitted, whereas India uses different colours to tell entry and exit visas apart easily. Today, visa stamps have evolved to include stickers, holograms, and even photos.

In a global world where time and efficiency is becoming increasingly important, the visa, as a simple stamp, is becoming a dying art. They were originally designed to prevent easy forgery but in a technological world where we have watermarks, bleeding ink, security fibres, raised printing and machine-readable text, we have far more impregnable ways of documenting the movement of individuals. If you are lucky enough to qualify for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program then all your details are kept digitally and the entry stamp is a mere formality. Many countries are realising the overhead required for stamping passports on exit from a country and systematically removing the procedure.

The history of visas and how they change over time, politically and as symbols of nations, as well as technologically and artistically, shows their cultural value. However, it is the stories they hold that give them added levels of fascination. Many keen travellers have blogged about their passport stamps and the adventures behind receiving each of them. It might be a nuisance, but for travellers a passport stamp is like a medal of honour: proof of places explored, adventures had, and lessons learned. As Norie Quintos, Executive Editor of National Geographic Traveler Magazine, sums up well:

“When I flip through the pages I’m instantly and palpably transported to various stages in my life: my childhood round-the-world trips with my parents, my footloose years on the Caribbean beat in my early career, and every trip with my children through their own growing stages. Each page tells a story, or three, depending on how many stamps are squeezed in.”

Images, footnote and bibliography not included.

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