The Real Reason Queen Elizabeth II Doesn't Need A Passport

While many leaders of the free world might think of themselves as royalty (looking at you, Donald Trump), almost all of them still need the same thing to travel around the world: a passport. Except for one, that is — none other than the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II. Ever since being crowned in 1953, the Queen has been able to travel freely around the globe without identification for nearly seven decades.

So, how is this possible? To get an idea, it's worth it to take a look at a bit of text inserted in every British passport today (and has been, in various iterations, for centuries). As per the royal family's official website, the text in question is as follows: "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary."

What exactly does this mean? And how does it explain why and how Queen Elizabeth II doesn't need a passport to get around? Let's take a closer look.

The explanation for why the Queen doesn't need a passport is a straight-up history lesson

According to a 2006 article from the Guardian, the first iteration of the British passport purportedly surfaced during the reign of King Henry V (or Timothée Chalamet with a bowl cut, for readers who aren't familiar with the history of the British monarchy).

As the Guardian explained, parliamentary paperwork referring to a "safe conduct" document first popped up in 1414 in regards to ensuring both British subjects and foreign nationals a sense of security while traveling (though the former had to pay for said documents while the latter did not). Due to the fact that these "safe conduct" documents were issued by the monarch themselves (or in this case, Henry V), there was never a need to bestow that permission — it would be redundant, at the very least. Or, as the Atlantic put it in a 2015 article on the subject (no pun intended), the Queen doesn't need a passport because she essentially is one.

Though these documents came under the jurisdiction of the Privy Council (essentially a cabinet of advisers) in 1540, so although the earliest version of the passport hasn't been something the ruling British monarch has directly issued for centuries, it's still something they don't necessarily need. Even so, only the reigning king or queen can travel without one — as the royal family's official website states, all other members are required to possess one to travel abroad.

If Queen Elizabeth II doesn't need a passport, why does everyone else?

So, if Queen Elizabeth II doesn't have to obtain or carry a passport to go in and out of the United Kingdom, then why do other leaders of other countries have to? Once again, the key to this query is all in the passport text.

As the Atlantic pointed out in 2015, the issuance text in the typical U.K. passport calls the Queen, "her Britannic Majesty" — a reference to her as a sovereign. If you compare it to a passport from the United States, you'll find that a similar type of issuance text names the secretary of state as the one who can "hereby [request] all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein." 

You don't have to look too closely to realize that "sovereign" and "citizen/national" aren't synonymous — and it's the reason everyone from the average U.S. resident to the President of the United States needs one to get around.

As with history, U.K. passports repeat themselves... sort of

Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, the Secretary of State (in this case, currently Secretary Mike Pompeo) is both a citizen and employee of the democratic U.S., not a crowned ruler in a country whose government operates as a constitutional monarchy. And while the Queen and the rest of the royal family might have titles that are mostly ceremonial (with a Prime Minister and Parliament that actually operate as a government body), Elizabeth II is still considered a sovereign first and foremost.

The question remains: Is this ever likely to change? According to the Express, most likely not — as they put it, after her eventual death any current passport will still be considered valid, and the phrasing of the issuance text will simply be tweaked to refer to whoever succeeds her (either her direct heir Prince Charles, or if he steps aside, his own eldest son, Prince William). The more you know, right?