Do Americans Prefer to Stay Home

According to most reports, about 30% of Americans have Passports, compared to 75% in the United Kingdom and 60% in Canada. Consider that up until 2007 when a Passport became required to visit our neighbors to the North and South, the number was only 20%.

Do you have one of these?

There are proponents on both side of the fight.

Some, prefer to characterize most Americans as homers, uninterested and uninspired by any country other than their own. Statements like that can be backed up with the idea that the United States, being over twice the size of the European Union (9.6 million km v. 4.3 million km) has everything in one place. Oceans, mountains, plains, deserts, snow, heat, the US has it all and with about 35 million international tourists a year, the proof is on the map.

Not only does the size of America play a role, but also the diversity. We all know, I am from New England, which is a hugely different area culturally from the Deep South, the Mountain West or the Pacific Northwest, in six hours I can go from the snowdrifts of Boston to the beach of San Diego in the middle of February, a distance of about 3,100 miles. For perspective, the distance from Paris to New York is 3,600 miles.

Tounge in cheek view of American geographical groups.

For most Europeans a passport is a part of everyday life, in some of those countries, a drive of just a few hours in any direction will bring you to a ‘foreign’ place. An English person going to the warm waters of the Mediterranean on vacation is the same as me going to Florida.

Another factor is the cost. A US passport costs $135 per person. If you’re a family of four going on your first vacation, that really adds up. Not to mention just the cost of flying out of the country. Flights to Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and the like run over $1,000 a seat easy, and with the dollar not really holding its own versus the Euro and Pound, most of us are losing money before we even set foot on the plane. There’s always the option of ‘cheaper’ locations, like Southeast Asia, but if you have saved $2,000 for vacation, and have to spend $1,800 on the flight, it can put a bit of a damper on the trip.

And of course, let us not forget that America is the ‘no vacation nation.’ With the vast majority of us only getting two weeks of vacation, if we get vacation at all, some locations can be too far for people when 2 days are used just sitting on a plane.

Where does your state fall?

But what about the other side of the equation. Not to get political here, but it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the states that are generally the ‘most educated,’ ‘healthiest,’ and ‘best to live’ are also the ones with the highest amount of passport holders.

Can an argument be made that those states (comprised largely of the New England and Mid Atlantic groups) foster an environment of citizens that feel foreign travel is a necessary part of life? There are a million great blogs out there of regular people who have spent months and even years traveling on only a couple of grand, are all of these people from the high passport states, are they outliers, or are they just proof that with efficiency and planning, foreign travel can be done?

The top 'most educated' states.

Beyond only the size and geography of the US, are we just more insular than citizens of other countries? Being American, we have the luxury of having (good or bad) the eyes of the world upon us, but unless you are actively searching out information, we don’t hear much about other countries in the news or on TV. Is the view others see a ‘dumbed down’ edited version of America, probably.

For me, the jury is still out.

As someone who loves to travel, I could not imagine not having a passport, yet there are millions of people who are not like me, who don’t care too much about travel, or would rather spend money on their own pursuits, or feel they can’t afford the luxury of it all.

Sometimes the lure of the ‘exotic’ makes foreign trips seem more exciting. I am the first to admit I have seen way more of Europe than my own country, something that I am working on changing. Am I a travel snob, perhaps, but more and more I am understanding how much natural beauty the US has to offer, and I fully attend to view it, maybe at the expense of my tourist dollars in another country.

So what’s your take, do Americans not have passports for a reason?

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  • I can think of several reasons why it happens, though none of them are satisfactory. 1) large country & you don’t need a passport to see it if you already live there; 2) the perception of travel as being out of reach financially; 3) media ideas of “America is the best, so why leave it?” coupled with the related fearmongering of “foreigners are not to be trusted/here to steal our jobs/terrorists”. Of course, this is why I push and push for my family and friends to travel — to see that #2 & #3 are not true!

    It can be difficult, however. That’s what inspired me to write a blog post titled “The Passport Initiative.” From that, a bunch of travel bloggers and I decided to start a FB page:

    There’s also a page called “PassportParty” to help young American girls get their first passports. Check out the groups and spread the word! 😀

  • Liz

    Great post on the Passport Initiative on your blog, I have liked both the Get Your Passport and the PassportParty groups, great ideas!

    • Fantastic. Glad you liked the post and the groups. Cheers! 🙂

      • Liz

        Yup, thanks for letting me know about those!

  • Europe is in general a bad comparison – there are so many reasons why its culturally different, including the geographic ones. Canada is probably better, but having experienced part of one winter there I’d say a passport to get out for a bit of it is a basic necessity.

    Most of the factors you list are however relevant to Australia, except to a greater degree:
    – it costs more to leave the country (unlike the US we can’t actually drive anywhere that requires a passport)
    – a passport costs almost twice as much (A$226…)
    – the country is just as diverse, and almost as big (especially if you look at the continental US excluding Alaska)

    The big difference is however in the holidays: In Australia you get a minimum of 4 weeks, plus public holidays. On top of that its culturally acceptable – almost expected – that Australians take a gap year or some other time overseas.

    I don’t think its a bad thing that people from the US travel within their own country – actually its good – the real problem is not getting enough leisure time at all.

  • Liz

    @Holgs – I completely agree that the fact that Americans get less vacation (and an even smaller percentage actually use it all) is a huge factor. I also think the cultural aspect has something to do with it.

    Now I wish I had taken a gap year after college, but the idea of doing that is really not as accepted here as in other countries.

    I have done a big of Googling and seems that about 60% of Australians have passports.

  • Part of it is economics as well. People don’t just hold passports for vacations, in fact more people probably hold passports for business trips. I would venture to guess people come to the US to do business more than Americans go abroad, a dynamic that is created when most of the companies are American to begin with. Though things will likely change as other countries become more competitive.

    The states you noticed having more passports is probably a reflection of this particular demographic of Americans that do travel internationally. Higher income levels allow these residents to make trips to Europe and other foreign destinations.

    • Liz

      Good points, Tom. I wondered as I was writing this how many passports were simply related to a need due to careers (i.e. business people and millitary), versus if they would have a passport for leisure travel anyway.

  • Great article – It got me curious so I decided to poll the followers on the Hostelling International USA Facebook page.

    “Why do you think many Americans don’t have a passport?”

    Here are the results:

    Thank you all for continuing this really important conversation

  • Liz

    Thanks @Danny, appreciate your passing along the post. It leads for an interesting discussion to be sure, and I think it probably ends up being a combination of a lot of different factors. But, hopefully, people will become more interested in travel.

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  • Shoefro

    Could it also be that Americans receive a much poorer education regarding geography and foreign culture so their curiosity is seldom engaged? Every person I’ve met from a foreign country has a much better knowledge of world and American geography than the average American. I’m sure this lack of knowledge is due to the structural problems inherent in our educational system, the focus on testing of math and English to the exclusion of other subjects and the general egotistical attitude most of us have about being “the greatest country in the world”. American Exceptionalism is the current political buzzword!

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  • Hozzy

    Hi, H’s Mum here.
    S and I have really enjoyed reading ‘Do Americans Prefer to Stay Home’. It’s well thought through and the comments are too. It provoked me to check out the current price of a new UK passport and actually they’re more expensive than you think, $121.52 so not that much cheaper! As you know we have visited a lot of the US. We always have encountered great hospitality. We have also met a huge range of people with differing ranges of income, education and aspiration. I have to reassure you that we have people here who have no idea of geography either, however S met someone in the US who thought there was a bridge between England and Scotland and someone else who asked if it was always foggy in England! Interestingly, we had to do the geography of the US and Canada when I was at school. However, we do think that some Americans are very insular and don’t seem to be curious about other cultures. We have always been aware of how short your vacations are and feel sorry that is so, that certainly won’t help you get abroad when you’ve so far to go! Anyway, I must stop now, I could ramble on for hours!

    • Liz

      Haha, I will get my facts ready for a good convo in September!