Just over half of U.S. residents can leave the U.S.

Hi there, it’s Rose. I’m a writer at Datawrapper, and today I’m following up on a surprising data tidbit.

A few days ago I came across a number that sounded crazy to me: Since 1990, the percentage of Americans who hold a valid passport has gone from 5% to 48%.

How can that be true? Only 5% of people could leave the country in 1990? But now almost half? That’s a huge cultural shift — has anything really happened in the U.S. in the past 30 years that could explain that?

But it’s true!

My only guess at first was that this change could have happened since the beginning of passport inspections for entry from Mexico and Canada. It used to be that U.S. citizens didn't have to prove their status when entering from those countries, but since 2007–2009 they've been required to show a passport or certain alternative documents. The number of passports circulating did increase most quickly in the years when this policy was rolling out... but not by much. What's much more striking to me is how smooth and steady the rising number of passport holders has been.

This line doesn't look like a reaction to a single rule or deadline — it looks like a deeper and ongoing societal change.

What's changing?

I don't know! Here are a few angles I can think of:

  • International travel has gotten cheaper over the years. Some of this is probably just increased demand from people who may always have wanted to travel outside the country, but are now more able to afford it.
  • The percent of U.S. residents who are immigrants has steadily risen through this period (since hitting its historic low around 1970). It makes sense that people with strong ties to other countries would have more interest in traveling to them — and for naturalized immigrants and their American children, that means a U.S. passport.
  • Young people are most likely to have a passport: 53% of 18–29 year olds carry one as opposed to just 33% of people aged 45–64. Maybe this is a cultural shift in progress.

And for comparison, about 41% of Germans say they have a valid passport; the Canadian government estimates 70%; 82% of nonimmigrant residents of England and Wales hold a U.K passport. (That last number is from 2021, the first year of post-Brexit travel rules.)

A note on the data

The number of currently circulating American passports is easy to find. But the right baseline to compare it to is the population of U.S. citizens and nationals — the people who would be eligible for a passport should they choose to apply. That number is not easy to find. Census questions on citizenship have been the subject of confusion and controversy, and also don't cover Americans living overseas. So my chart here uses the U.S. resident population instead — not an ideal comparison, but I think still a useful one.

That's all for today! See you next Thursday for the last Weekly Chart of the year.