When George W. Bush leaves tonight for his European trip, will he have to take a passport with him just like every other American who goes abroad?
Yes, he needs a passport, but no, it’s not like everyone else’s. The president of the United States, his immediate family, certain top officials, and diplomatic personnel are issued diplomatic passports, which have a black cover and for which the bearer doesn’t have to pay a passport fee. When the president travels, a team of people, usually from the State Department, coordinate the paperwork of the trip and hold onto the president’s passport. After the president emerges from Air Force One, waves to the crowd, and gets in his limo, he doesn’t then stand in line at customs. The State Department employees take his passport, and those of the others in his entourage, through the host country’s customs procedures.
The United States issues three types of passports. There are currently about 44 million holders of the familiar, blue tourist passport (a few thousand people have green passports issued during the bicentennial of the U.S. Consular Service). About 400,000 have a maroon-covered “official” passport. These are issued to people not in the diplomatic corps who are going abroad in the service of the U.S. government–a large percentage of holders of official passports are active-duty military and their families. About 80,000 Americans have diplomatic passports. One perk of the presidency is that even when you’re out of office, you get to keep your diplomatic passport. That means Bush, who had one once before, when he was the son of the president, will never have to be without one.
Bonus Explainer: Yes, the pope and Queen Elizabeth have their own passports.
Bonus Update: This just in from the Queen of England, “We are not amused that Slate fails to understand that while members of my family have passports, I don’t. And here’s why.”
Explainer thanks Christopher Lamora of the State Department; Julia Payne, spokeswoman for former President Bill Clinton; and reader Rebekah Woodworth for suggesting the question.