Historically, legal authority to issue passports is founded on the exercise of each country's executive discretion (or Crown prerogative). Arkelian have argued that evolutions in both the constitutional law of democratic countries and the international law applicable to all countries now render those historical tenets both obsolete and unlawful.

Certain legal tenets follow, namely: first, passports are issued in the name of the state; second, no person has a legal right to be issued a passport; third, each country's government, in exercising its executive discretion, has complete and unfettered discretion to refuse to issue or to revoke a passport; and fourth, that the latter discretion is not subject to judicial review. Under some circumstances some countries allow people to hold more than one passport document.

For example, stateless persons are not normally issued a national passport, but may be able to obtain a refugee travel document or the earlier "Nansen passport" which enables them to travel to countries which recognise the document, and sometimes to return to the issuing country.

Passports are often requested in other circumstances to confirm identification such as checking in to a hotel or when changing money to a local currency.

These controls remained in place after the war, becoming a standard, though controversial, procedure.

British tourists of the 1920s complained, especially about attached photographs and physical descriptions, which they considered led to a "nasty dehumanization".

This enables border controllers and other law enforcement agents to process these passports more quickly, without having to input the information manually into a computer.

ICAO publishes Doc 9303 Machine Readable Travel Documents, the technical standard for machine-readable passports. These contain biometrics to authenticate the identity of travellers.

In 1794, issuing British passports became the job of the Office of the Secretary of State.

A rapid expansion of railway infrastructure and wealth in Europe beginning in the mid-nineteenth century led to large increases in the volume of international travel and a consequent unique dilution of the passport system for approximately thirty years prior to World War I.

One of the earliest known references to paperwork that served in a role similar to that of a passport is found in the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemiah 2:7-9, dating from approximately 450 BC, states that Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes I of Persia, asked permission to travel to Judea; the king granted leave and gave him a letter "to the governors beyond the river" requesting safe passage for him as he traveled through their lands.

This may apply, for example, to people who travel a lot on business, and may need to have, say, a passport to travel on while another is awaiting a visa for another country.