Only people who paid their zakah (for Muslims) or jizya (for dhimmis) taxes were permitted to travel to different regions of the Caliphate; thus, the bara'a receipt was a "traveler's basic passport." In medieval Europe, such documents were issued to travelers by local authorities, and generally contained a list of towns and cities the document holder was permitted to enter or pass through.

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Previously issued passports usually remain valid until each expires.

A passport holder is normally entitled to enter the country that issued the passport, though some people entitled to a passport may not be full citizens with right of abode.

Consequently, comparatively few people held passports. During World War I, European governments introduced border passport requirements for security reasons, and to control the emigration of people with useful skills.

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

A passport does not of itself create any rights in the country being visited or obligate the issue country in any way, such as providing consular assistance.

Some passports attest to status as a diplomat or other official, entitled to rights and privileges such as immunity from arrest or prosecution.

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.

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.

Where a country does not recognise another, or is in dispute with it, it may prohibit the use of their passport for travel to that other country, or may prohibit entry to holders of that other country's passports, and sometimes to others who have, for example, visited the other country.

Some countries and international organisations issue travel documents which are not standard passports, but enable the holder to travel internationally to countries that recognise the documents.

Like some smartcards, the passport booklet design calls for an embedded contactless chip that is able to hold digital signature data to ensure the integrity of the passport and the biometric data.