Documents are an integral part of our lives. Without a passport or an ID card we would not be able to go on with our lives. Our functioning in today’s world would be impossible. Due to their importance, documents require adequate security to protect them against the possibility of forgery or alteration. Such documents include, among others passports, ID cards and driving licenses. Security features prohibit the documents from being counterfeited and falsified. There is a difference between those two terms: counterfeiting is an illegal reproduction of documents and falsification is illegal change of information on an actual document. The more security features are on the document the safer it is. However, identity documents have not always been so complex and full of security features.

Brief history of identity documents

First documents that could be considered somewhat as a predecessor to a passport were travel documents. The first travel documents were issued in the XV century England. Many of these early documents were not called passports but the laissez-passer (the safe conduct), and most of them we would not recognise as a passport today. The documents were handwritten on a sheet of paper, issued by a local landlord or an administrator. They looked more like a letter than the passport booklets we know today. The main purpose of the document was not to identify the bearer, but to grant them a safe passage on foreign land. The documents were written by a scribe, and then signed and sealed by the lord. The description of the bearer was very sparse, the issuer was the one who was described in detail with his coat of arms, titles and decorations. The only security features on those documents were the signature and the seal. They were written in English and Latin, but after 1778 they were written in French due to the fact that it was the language of diplomacy at the time. This was until 1858, when the passport began to be used as an identity document.

At the end of the XIX century, the documents changed their purpose and were also used as identity documents. They started to be written in their country of origin language instead of French. It was also a time when ID cards started to be more common. The first country to use something similar to an ID card was France. It was Napoleon who implemented the system of internal ID documents for workers. Worldwide, ID cards began to be widely used in the XX century.

Document design

As the function of the documents changed, so did the need to create a more structured framework for creating documents. Until the end of the XIX century no one was thinking about their design. But since the documents were also supposed to validate a bearer’s identity, they needed to last longer and have protection against counterfeiting.

Before the First World War, borders were mostly open, passports were obsolete and the movement of people as well as different goods was free. As the war started, countries reinstated passport controls. Maybe it was supposed to be only a temporary measure, but it was up until the implementation of The Schengen Area. As the technology progressed so did the security features on the documents, additionally, to help the identification process, the photograph of the bearer was added. The form of the passport changed from a sheet of paper to a booklet. The booklet had within it a photograph,a signature and personal description.

After the war, in the 1920s, the League of Nations standardized the issued passports. Their rules laid the groundwork for the modern passport design. The conferences on passports ratified the template for a 32-page booklet with dimensions of 15.5 cm by 10.5 cm with the first four pages detailing the bearer’s facial characteristics, occupation, and residence. There was a place for a holder’s photo, but also the photo of the holder’s wife. Additionally there was space for the names of his children. Each passport was supposed to be written in French and at least one other language. The passport had to be in a cardboard cover and was supposed to have the country’s name and coat of arms centered on it. The information within the document was  still handwritten, but the template was printed out. 

After the Second World War the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was established and it is responsible to this day for standardization of the travel documents. The change from printed template filled with hand written content, to all printed was the next step in the document evolution. The ICAO decided to implement machine-readable passports, to speed up the verification process. For this reason they agreed on the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which gives a machine the ability to read a script that a human can also read, in case the early machines that read the information on the document broke. Most identity documents nowadays have a machine-readable zone, which contains personal information of the documents owner and special control digits that prevent forgery. MRZ is always written in the same typeset as per ICAO standards.

Security features

First security features were very basic. Due to the fact that the documents were handwritten on paper and that paper was hard to come by, the pages were thin and they did not last long. Any security measures added to a document could also damage the fragile paper. Wax seals, especially bigger, heavier seals, crumbled with time and could break off, which would damage the document even further.

The most popular security feature was a watermark. First watermarks were created by changing the thickness of the paper, while the paper was still wet and creating a shadow in it. The creation of a dandy roll made the process easier and more efficient. 

With time and the development of technology more and more security features were added to the documents. In the middle of the XIX century security features were either black and white or printed with colors that were hard to reproduce. Embossed elements were introduced as well as fine line patterns (guilloches). Guilloches were very hard to forge due to the fact that they required sophisticated machinery to print them, otherwise the patterns would become unreadable in reproduction. Intaglio printing was another invention that was used as a document security feature. With Intaglio printing the image is etched into a metal plate and the ink is applied to the plate before being stamped onto the paper. 

Additional layer of security was added to the material the document is made from, which is called a substrate. Colored fibers are randomly embedded into the piece of paper. As printing techniques advanced coloured security threads and microprinting were introduced. Furthemore  optical features combined with special inks and paper with background patterns were used to stop the documents from being falsified. 

The ink used to print the document also has security features within itself. Nowadays there are various optical and non-optical (for example magnetic) features available. From UV pigments, optically variable ink, which changes colour depending on the angle, to magnetic or metallic inks. The multitude of options with the choice of pigment is vast.

Invention of plastic

The invention of plastic started the new era of foolproofing documents. The polymer based substrate was used as a material for documents which added new possibilities. The polymer was used mainly to create ID cards. With the use of laser technology, security features like laser engraving and perforation were introduced as well as changeable laser image, where the image changes depending on the angle of the view. 

Documents started to be protected with the laminate, to prevent the separation of individual elements, as well as forgery. A laminate can cover a page both from one and two sides, to create a pocket. It can also incorporate additional security features such as holograms, retroreflective effect or embossing.


Many documents have diffractive features which are highly detailed and display different colours and designs when rotated and tilted. A hologram doesn’t have to always just reflect a pattern or an image. It can also have micro lettering or guilloche within the image. A hologram is very often placed on the holder’s photo, to prevent the removal of a photo from a document and replacing it with someone else’s.


The final step in creation of the document is personalisation. It is the  process of integration of personal data and a photo of the document owner. The details are laser engraved and additional security measures are added, such as changeable laser image with secondary holders photo (ghost picture).

Future of security features

The world goes digital, and so do identity documents. The future can bring alternative means of identification such as mobile documents and cloud based solutions. Physical identity documents already have many security features such as microchips and barcodes. The most popular biometric features used as security features are: fingerprints, thermal image of the face, hand geometry, arrangement of blood vessels in the hand, iris and retinal scans, signature, and even voice recording or DNA. New security features are still developed and they are incorporated into the material the documents are made from. Combination of materials, technology and the design of the documents can protect it. Such an approach adds additional barriers against the counterfeiters. 

With the rapid evolution of technology more complex security features became available. This also means that the fraudsters also have more sophisticated methods of forgery. That is why it is so important to check the validity of documents during the onboarding process. Companies like Fully-Verified, that provide  video verification services supported by technology and artificial intelligence with a human operator are superior to the automated solutions that could easily miss forged security features and documents that are simply printed out on a piece of paper.


  1. Stefan Jakucewicz, Svitlana Khadzhynova – Sposoby zabezpieczania dokumentów
  2. Karl Maria Michael de Leeuw, Jan Bergstra – The History of Information Security: A Comprehensive Handbook
  3. Martin Lloyd – The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document

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