The Traveling Minority

“Do you know that only 5 percent of American own passports?”

I hear it all the time: a frequently-quoted statistic that gets thrown around at home and abroad, either by condescending foreigners or self-righteous, well-traveled Americans.

Their exact numbers tend to fluctuate–7 percent, 9 percent, 15 percent–yet no matter the number that’s quoted, it’s always shockingly low–so low that all of us within earshot are shocked by our backward fellow citizens and yet proud to be part of the astute traveling minority.

Well, I’m tired of the rhetoric.

I’m also tired of listening to made-up numbers tossed around at dinner parties and happy hours. And so I decided to find out the truth: Exactly how many American citizens have valid passports? Lucky for me, I live in Washington, D.C. and can literally knock on the door of the State Department and simply ask them, “How many Americans carry passports?”

The first thing I learned was that I didn’t have to actually go down to the State Department. All these nifty passport statistics are available online.

The other thing I learned is that our feigned shock at America’s passport-holding minority is severely outdated. Yes, at the end of the eighties, only 2.8% percent of Americans carried passports. But by the time I applied for my very first passport in 1991, I  joined the ranks of the 14,344,241 fellow Americans who had passports—5.7 percent of the population (252,127,402).Indeed, that was shockingly low.

However, things have changed. A full twenty years later and according to the U.S. State Department (in January 2012) there are now 109,780,364 Americans who hold current passports. That is slightly more than 35 percent of the current population (312,800,000)–more than a third of the country.

What’s changed? Well, the most significant development was the introduction of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) in 2007. The new travel regulations required Americans to hold passports in order to travel to Mexico, Canada, and the island nations of the Caribbean. Remember the good old days when you could enter Mexico with a birth certificate or fly to St. Maarten with a driver’s license? Me too, but they’re long gone.

But even taking the new regulations into consideration, a much larger percentage of Americans own passports than ever before. The real question is, once we have our passports, do we use them?  Given the massive size of the United States, foreign travel usually involves a flight across an ocean. Compare that to the year I lived in Belgium, when I could take my car out on a Saturday and drive to five countries in four hours.

That explains why in the United Kingdom, nearly 80 percent of British citizens hold passports. (If having a passport was the only way for you to get off an overcast island the size of Oregon, you would apply for one too.) Meanwhile, less than two percent of Chinese citizens hold passports.

So don’t knock us Americans. We are traveling more now than ever before, and if current trends continue, we should become a traveling majority by 2020.