What Your Passport Color Really Means

Why most passports only come in four colors, and what each of them means.

Travelers don’t have much control over how their passports look beyond the photo — and even then, strict photo requirements don’t leave much room for creativity.

While most people would probably love a dusty pink or marigold passport book, unfortunately, passports around the world usually conform to muted shades of red, blue, green, or black.  

However, the use of those colors is more of an industry standard than a rule. As Business Insider reported, the cardstock that passport covers are made of comes from third-party suppliers, therefore limiting the color of the cardstock available to whatever the supplier has.  

Actually, the color of your passport follows no strict system of country categorization — though that's not to say the color each country chooses is totally random, either. 

"Most passports in the world are based on blue and red primary colors," said Passport Index co-founder Hrant Boghossian. There's an enormous degree of variation in hues, though. And while geography, politics, and even religion come into play when a country selects its passport cover, there are no guidelines or regulations dictating the color of these national documents. 

"There's nothing [that] stipulates the cover color," confirmed Anthony Philbin of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which issues passport standards on cover size, format, and technology.

So what can we infer from a passport's color? According to Boghossian, it's a matter of national identity.

Red Passports

Often, the color of a passport indicates the economic union a country belongs to. Burgundy passports are used by members of the European Union (sans Croatia), and countries interested in joining (think: Turkey) have changed their passport colors to match. The Andean Community (also known for past EU-ambitions) of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru also has burgundy passports. Switzerland's passport, in effortless and famously Swiss-fashion, matches the country's flag, with a red cover embossed with crosses.

Blue Passports

The economic union Caricom — the Caribbean Community and Common Market — states typically have blue passports. The Southern Common Market, known as Mercosur, consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay all boast blue passports, as well. Blue is also the color used throughout the “new world” (like in North America), as Boghossian told Business Insider.  

Selection of passports
Getty Images

The United States' passport, however, only became navy blue in 1976 — to match the shade found on the American Flag. Before that?

"We believe the first travel documents in the U.S. were red," Boghossian told Travel + Leisure. "Green passports were used in the 1930s, followed by burgundy ones, [and] black passports in the 1970s."

Green Passports

"Most Islamic states use green passports because of the importance of the colour in their religion," Boghossian shared with Business Insider. Variations of green are also used by members of ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States — including Niger and Ghana.

The color also has a fun place in U.S. history. For one year in 1993, the U.S. issued green passports in honor of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Consular Service for the first time since changing the color to blue in 1976 for the bicentennial. 

Black Passports

Here's another, far more practical, interpretation for selecting passport colors. Dark colors (even deep shades of blue and red) show less dirt and tend to look more official. Black passports, while more rare than red or blue, accomplish this best. Examples include Angola, Malawi, and New Zealand — for the latter, black is also considered one of the country's national colors.

Beyond Passport Covers

A few years ago, Norway held a nationwide competition for a new passport design, in an effort to define its distinct personality. The colors of the winning design? Vibrant and modern.

The firm that handled the redesign took inspiration from Norway’s natural scenery and the current passport books come in vivid hues of white, sky blue, and vermillion (remixes of the colors on the country’s flag). Inside, you’ll find pictures of Norwegian landscapes that, when held under a UV light, reveal the northern lights.  

UV watermarks have become a popular interior detail used to uphold a country’s culture while also increasing security. Inside a Canadian passport, you’ll find UV maple leaves and fireworks. So, there have been some efforts at customization and creativity when it comes to the inside of a passport book, despite the fact that the covers of most passports have gone relatively unchanged.  

When it comes down to it, governments have the freedom to change their passport designs in any way, yet most have the same ubiquitous look. Of course, countries want these government documents to look official and probably want to stray from frivolous color palettes and insignia.   

And, the color of your passport book ultimately means much less than what the passport itself represents. After all, both the United States and Syria issue blue passports — but Syria has one of the worst-ranking passports in the world. Having a Syrian passport allows you access to only 31 countries without a visa, due to diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, the U.S. has the third-best-ranking passport, according to Passport Index.

"We forget that [passports] belong to people. For some, they are a barrier. To others, a right of passage," Boghossian said to Travel + Leisure.

Maybe one day we’ll all have passports in sweet shades of ice cream flavors (though it’s much more likely we’ll forgo books entirely in favor of digital passports). Until then, red, blue, green, and black, and their respective meanings, will have to suffice.  

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