The Not-So-Colorful World of Passport Covers

written by A. L. Hart Havens on July 1, 2021

Strictly speaking, the interchangeable usage of the terms passport and citizenship is simply incorrect, although this frequent conflation typically does not hinder comprehension in the context of casual conversation. It is nonetheless important to keep in mind when examining the issue more closely that a passport is merely one of many perks of holding a country’s citizenship.

While some concerned citizens are focused on the value that a second citizenship can offer such as providing access to a political and financial safe haven abroad, others are much more fixated on the travel document itself that is afforded to a county’s citizenry – the national passport.

What’s more, passports have in recent years become precious objects of desire and status symbols among the wealthy and super wealthy. And with the newfound hobby of passport collecting unquestionably on the rise, it is worth taking a closer look at the aesthetics of these valuable resources, in particular as pertains to the aspect of color.

Blue, Red, Green, and Black

The Montreal‑based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN‑affiliated agency responsible for publishing standards and recommendations on the size and appearance of national passports, remarkably does not set out any rules concerning the permissible colors for passport covers.

All ordinary passports issued by countries across the world nonetheless come in one of only four colors: blue, red, green, and black. And although there is no rule that would prevent a country from issuing a purple, yellow, or pink passport, it is the aforementioned colors that have established themselves as the de facto worldwide standard for ordinary passport covers.

Despite this seemingly mundane restriction, there is some degree of variation among the shades of the blue, red, and green passports. Most notably, there is a clear tendency toward the darker shades, as these provide a better background for the national coat of arms and do not reveal smudging and wear‑and‑tear as readily as do lighter shades.

It should be emphasized that the four‑color restriction applies solely to ordinary passports. Diplomatic, emergency, temporary, and other special types of passports can deviate from this standard.

Passport Colors Across World Regions

A glance at a world map displaying countries in the color of their passport covers will reveal a number of general preferences that world regions have for a particular color. For example, the continent of Europe is colored nearly entirely red with very few exceptions.

The European Union encourages its member countries to issue dark red passports in the shade of burgundy, and 26 of the 27 member countries adhere to this recommendation. The exception is Croatia, which issues a blue passport. Additionally, the United Kingdom switched from red to blue in 2020 following the implementation of Brexit.

By contrast, the color blue is dominant throughout the Western Hemisphere with the main exceptions consisting of Mexico (green) and a few countries in the western part of South America (red).

With the Fourth of July approaching, it is worth noting that the United States only began issuing blue passports in 1976 as part of the American Bicentennial celebration. The US passport was green prior to 1976 and red prior to 1941.

A limited‑edition dark green cover was issued from April 1993 to March 1994 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s contribution to establishing the US consular system, and this passport featured a full-page tribute to Franklin honoring his remarkable life achievements. The US government resumed the issuance of blue passports in April 1994.

As for the remaining world regions, the color red is most prevalent among East Asian passports, while the Muslim world, sub‑Saharan Africa, and the African continent as a whole exhibit a preference for green. However, the scheduled rollout of the African Union passport over the next few years could lead to all 55 continental and adjacent island African countries issuing red passports in the near future.

While there are no world regions in which black is the predominant passport color, the most notable countries that issue black passports are India, New Zealand, and the Dominican Republic.

Interestingly, the four passport colors are far from equally abundant throughout the world. Of the 199 ordinary passports that are generally recognized internationally as valid cross‑border travel documents, there are 81 blue, 65 red, 44 green, and 9 black. (The exact breakdown can vary due to a small number of passports featuring in‑between colors that are not clearly allocable to blue, red, green, or black.)

In view of this not‑so‑wide albeit highly intriguing world of passport colors, a distinguished individual building a repertoire of citizenships may – in addition to pursuing political diversification across national borders – also make a point of including the entire passport color spectrum in his collection.