Identity Documents – Where Did They Come From?

We use them so much in our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to take identity documents for granted. From proving who we are to paying for the food we eat to allowing us to go abroad, they’re now such an ingrained part of modern life, we probably don’t stop to think how this came to be.

Although they seem like an innovation of the 20th century, identity cards have existed in some form or another for thousands of years – long before we used plastic ID cards or mobile devices for identification purposes.

Below, we’ll take a look at how identity documents and cards have evolved over the years, from their humble beginnings 100,000 years ago to the widespread use of modern ID cards up to the present day.

What is an identity document?

Essentially, an identity document is any document that is used to prove a person’s identity. Here in the UK, we tend to use photo ID, a driver’s licence or a passport to prove who we are, although some countries issue formal identity documents.

Some countries also won’t accept driver’s licences for identity purposes since they can easily be forged. Meanwhile, certain other countries also require people to carry identity documents with them at all times.

students handing driving license over

Where did identity documents originate?


It may seem as though identity documents are a relatively new creation, but we can actually trace the concept back hundreds of centuries. It’s been said by researchers and historians that those living in South Africa, Israel and Algeria used items, just as commonplace and everyday as modern ID documents, to prove themselves: jewellery.

Back then, beads were used to communicate all sorts of different information, including wealth, family history and personal identity. Even today, we can see the impact of such a concept with the likes of dog tags in the military and medical alert bracelets to classify and identify individuals.


Skipping ahead to 1046 BC, a more permanent means of communication – used for a wide range of uses – became apparent. First used in China as a means of identifying prisoners, tattoos were also famously used by the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. With no written language to use, the Maori developed elaborate facial tattoos to identify themselves to other tribes.

Known as Mokos, these tattoos varied wildly between tribesmen, with each one communicating important information such as status and ancestry. And though their use is arguably less tribal, it’s certainly interesting to see just how pervasive and widespread tattoos have become in the present day, much in the same way jewellery has.

Workman at the door showing his ID

The first passport

Although it sounds like they may have been created far later, the very first passport actually came about under the reign of King Henry V of England. Following the Safe Conducts Act of 1414, Henry V created the passport as a means for English citizens to prove their identity in foreign countries.

Then known as ‘safe conduct’ documents, the name switched to the present-day passport around 1540, derived from a medieval document that was required to pass through city walls or into different territories.

The ID card originates…

The ID card as we know it in some form today began in 19th-century France. Wanting to streamline the country’s central government in France after the 1789-1799 Revolution, Napoleon introduced a system of internal ID documents for workers in 1803.

Despite originating as worker documents, such reforms inspired other countries to create more far-reaching ID systems. For instance, Sultan Mahmud II introduced national ID cards to the Ottoman empire in 1844. The uptake of national ID cards in other countries, however, would not arrive until the onset of World War II.

ID card

How have identity documents evolved over the years?

Wartime and beyond

Here in the UK, the passing of the National Registration Act 1939, a piece of emergency wartime legislation, meant that identity cards were compulsory across the nation. Such documents included the following personal details:

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Residence
  • Marital status
  • Military membership (included Navy, Air Force Reserves and Civil Defence Services or Reserves)

Similar ID card systems followed suit in Germany, France, Greece and Poland. Post-World War II, ID card adoption heavily increased in Asia, as newly independent governments aimed to expand state authority. Seeking to increase its sovereignty and reduce immigration from mainland China, the Hong Kong government implemented an ID card in 1949.

Taiwan also introduced ID cards for similar reasons, while South Korea and Singapore adopted them in the 1960s for reasons of economic transformation. Compulsory ID cards in the UK were repealed in 1952 following the prosecution of Harry Willcock, who refused to produce his ID card after being stopped for speeding. Following his absolute discharge, the government allowed the system of ID cards to lapse.


Much like passports, passports aren’t the modern invention you might assume they are. They’ve existed long before the creation of computers and smartphones. In fact, the Romans used passwords in their military in order to identify individuals entering restricted areas.

Computer passwords as we know them today, however, were first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on an early time-sharing operating system.



Although biometric identification existed as early as 1858 with the introduction of fingerprints on wills and deeds, the field made real strides in the noughties. In 2004, Connecticut, Rhode Island and California introduced state-wide palm print databases, allowing enforcement agencies to search unidentified palm prints against known offenders.

In 2010, the world’s largest biometric digital ID system debuted in India. Known as the Aadhaar system, it captures people’s fingerprints and iris scans, assigning participants with a unique 12-digit number. Through this system, verification for government programs becomes far more streamlined, while also having a powerful effect on reducing instances of fraud too. As of October 2021, there are 1.31 billion people who voluntarily enrolled in the program.

The continued development of biometrics has also seen it crop up in the consumer market too. Starting in 2013, Apple’s launch of the iPhone 5S saw the smartphone include a fingerprint sensor. It wasn’t long before other manufacturers introduced similar features. Not to be outdone, Apple’s iPhone X featured Face ID as an added security measure.

And as biometric authentication becomes more and more ubiquitous – and the cost for this kind of security drops – it’s easy to see how much more prevalent biometrics could well become in modern life.

Swype is one of the UK’s leading plastic card and print specialists, delivering first-class service and innovative solutions. For more information about our products and services, visit the homepage or call 01744 815475.

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