The United States isn’t known as the most well-traveled nation. To be fair, we have a huge natural obstacle: The enormous size of our country. You could fit France—which boasts centuries of history and culture—inside the borders of Texas. The entire continent of Europe, as a land mass, is only slightly larger than the United States. Unless you live in driving distance of Mexico or Canada, you’re going to have to fly to visit a foreign country. And flying ain’t cheap.
So, it’s no surprise that we lack the passport distribution, of, say, the United Kingdom, where 80 percent of citizens have their passports (and it’s quite easy to get an affordable flight to a foreign country). Still, American passport applications have been rising steadily over the past 30 years. They peaked in 2007, which was a unique year: It was a year before the State Department started requiring passports for Americans heading to (and returning from) Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda, so there was a mad rush of applications. It also happened to be the year before the start of the Great Recession—the last year, in other words, that Americans were dropping cash on everything. Including expensive foreign travel.
(If you click on the chart, it’ll bring you to a larger version. The light blue denotes “passport cards,” which the State Department started issuing in 2008, for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.)
Passport applications have dropped off a bit since the 2007 peak, but remain fairly high, at nearly 14 million in 2010. But how many Americans actually posses a current and valid passport? That gets tricky. Adult passports are valid for 10 years, which means that an adult passport issued before 2001 is no longer valid. Based on the State Department numbers, about 114 million passports have been issued in the past 10 years.
That doesn’t take into account all the kids, whose passports are only good for five years. According to the Census Bureau, 21.8% of the U.S. population is under 16—so any children’s passports issued before 2006 are invalid. If you take those children’s expired passports out of the equation, there are only 105 million valid American passports. (I based my calculations upon the supposition that adults and kids receive passports at an equivalent rate, based on their respective population percentages. Adults are probably issued a higher rate of passports, but there is no better way of breaking it down. If you have better numbers, please share.)
That means that 34.4 percent of the population owns a passport—which is still higher than I thought. And higher than it was even three years ago, when only about 28 percent owned one. We’re not the U.K., but now that more than a third of Americans can travel abroad, we’re reaching a critical mass.
And, because America loves a good ole’ competition, we come to our final question: What are the best traveled states? This got a little complicated, as the State Department only broke down state numbers back to 2007. Extrapolating backward, based on the growth of passport applications in the above chart, we end up with a pretty map like this (click for a larger version):
New Jersey is the best-traveled state, with 47.4 percent owning passports. (Are that many people desperate to get out of the Jerz?) Mississippi is the least adventurous: Only 13.4 percent of state residents own a passport.
If you look at the map, a few things are clear: the coastal and border states tend to be the best traveled, especially in the Northeast. Far-flung Alaska also has a high rate of passport ownership, which makes sense, given it’s proximity to Canada. (And Russia!) Unsurprisingly, all of these well-traveled states are among the wealthiest in the country. The least worldy states, meanwhile, are in the South; they also happen to be among the poorest states. As their wealth rises, passport applications will likely rise. Until then, it’s a reminder: flying, especially to a foreign country, ain’t cheap.