Why Do So Few Americans Have Passports?
Nearly every time I go abroad—especially to Europe—people remind me that most Americans do not possess passports and express wonder at our unwillingness to travel. This always stings for a few reasons, the largest of which being that I know how privileged I am to be able to travel abroad. As a child, I always imagined that international travel would forever remain out of reach; only through a bizarre and nearly inimitable set of circumstances have I had the opportunity to travel more places than I had ever dreamed. And yet, we must admit, the US is one of the richest countries in the world… so is it just that Americans who do have the financial means don’t place a premium on travel? Let’s look at the numbers…
As of January 2014, about 46% of Americans held passports. Most of these passport holders resided in high-education, higher-income, coastal states. Poorer southern and Midwestern states had the fewest passport holders. But again, if the US is one of the richest countries, economic barriers should affect Europeans, Australians, and others in the same way, correct? So the US should not have a significantly lower level of passport holders… until one considers the cost of travel. For Europeans, travel to other countries for which a passport is necessary is remarkably low. Depending on location, it could be as low as the price of a cup of coffee. Relatively few Americans enjoy this level of access, and most live several hundreds, if not one thousand dollars, away from a trip across the border. So, understandably, they choose cheaper domestic travel instead. Certainly higher cost of travel contributes to lower levels of passport holders.
Compounding this cost variable is a higher level of income inequality within the United States than any comparably wealthy country. Notoriously, the US has among the highest levels of income and wealth income inequality within the OECD. So while it is among the wealthiest countries, the proportion of people with no disposable income is much higher than in, say, France, Spain, or Italy. Thus, even more people in the United States are excluded from opportunities to travel than in supposedly comparable countries.
The United States is freaking enormous. Not only is it enormous, but it holds some of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. NYC, LA, SF, Miami, Disney-everything… and that’s not to mention the natural attractions like the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the Great Lakes. Obviously there’s a whole great wide world to discover, and I’m a huge proponent of Americans doing so more frequently, but when pressed to choose affordable options, it’s no wonder that many Americans look domestically.
So perhaps instead of bemoaning the low levels of travel among Americans, we can dedicate energy to thinking about how to increase the accessibility of international travel by addressing these cost and inequality challenges… and if you don’t have a passport, go get one!