A Brief History of National ID Cards

“ID card adoption is more likely following economic or political shocks”

natl-id-card-free-useby Connor T. Jerzak

National ID cards can provoke diverse reactions. In some countries, identity cards are seen as uncontroversial,even boring, documents. In others, the cards can arouse heated controversy. In short, what is striking about national ID cards is how debate over their merits has varied over space and time. In this blog, we trace out this evolution of ID cards worldwide.


One precursor to national ID cards emerged in 19th century France. Napoleon sought to streamline the central government in France after the revolutionary period between 1789 and 1799. As he clarified property rights and created new bureaucratic offices, he also introduced a system of internal ID documents for workers in 1803-1804.

Although the French passcards were intended for workers, the Napoleonic reforms prompted other countries to implement more comprehensive ID systems. Starting in 1839, Sultan Mahmud II, impressed by the success of the Napoleonic reforms for building state capabilities, introduced national ID cards to the Ottoman empire in 1844. Hence, early identity cards were adopted to consolidate state institutions. Yet few countries would adopt national ID cards until the shock of World War II.

Origins of Contemporary ID Systems

World War II initiated the contemporary era of ID cards. In 1938, lawmakers in the United Kingdom passed the National Registry Act, which mandated that all residents possess identity cards. The German government also instituted an ID system that year (although these cards contained information about residents’ religion for discriminatory purposes). In 1940, the Vichy government in France instituted an ID system as well, as in Greece and Poland. These systems largely endure to this day, except in the United Kingdom, where courts repealed mandatory IDs in 1952. Analysts have noted that civil law countries are more likely to maintain ID statutes than common law countries (such as the UK). With only a handful of exceptions, no common law country in the world has accepted a peacetime identification system.[1]

In the decades following WWII, ID card adoption was rapid in Asia, as newly independent governments sought to expand state authority. The Hong Kong government introduced an identity card in 1949 to strengthen its sovereignty and quell immigration from mainland China. Taiwan also introduced ID cards in 1949 for similar reasons, and, in the 1960s, South Korea and Singapore followed suit in the context of economic transformation.

ID systems would continue to expand in the twenty years between 1985 and 2005, revealing several trends:

First, the events of 9/11 renewed debate over ID cards. Despite long-standing opposition to identity cards in the UK, the British government passed the (since repealed) Identity Cards Act in 2006, and the Canadian government considered similar legislation. Although a national ID card system was never pursued in the US, lawmakers passed the REAL ID Act (2005), which created security standards for state identity documents.

Second, European unification intensified the adoption of ID card systems in member states. Indeed, by 2014, most European Union countries were using ID cards, which were intended to facilitate travel and communications in the EU.

Third, ID cards have come to include increasingly sophisticated biometrics, which enhance the security of ID systems. In 1999 South Africa introduced electronic ID cards. In the 2000s, Indonesia and others launched ID systems containing iris and fingerprint information.


Overall, ID card policy depends on each country’s institutional specificities, but some trends are common across countries. National ID systems are often implemented in times of heightened security risk. Governments also tend to implement ID systems to consolidate state institutions or during periods of economic transformation. In sum, ID card adoption is more likely following economic or political shocks, which give governments the incentive and legitimacy to create identity systems.

[1] Whitley, E. A., & Hosein, G. (2009). Global challenges for identity policies. Palgrave Macmillan.

This blog is part of a series we will be publishing in the lead up to an international conference on November 19-21. The conference is free and open to the public. For details visit the conference website.