Identity document

From Academic Kids

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German identity document sample
An identity document is a piece of documentation designed to prove the identity of the person carrying it. Unlike other forms of documentation, which only have a single purpose such as authorizing bank transfers or proving membership of a library, an identity document simply asserts the bearer's identity. If an identity document is in the form of a small standard-sized card, such as an ISO 7810 card, it is called an identity card.

Identity cards can be controversial, as depending on the way they are used by government (under which circumstances they must be produced; whether/how information about use is stored on databases) can make government surveillance of citizens much easier.


Types of identity cards

Modern identity cards bear little resemblance to the traditional "photograph on piece of cardboard" and are often hi-tech smartcards capable of being swiped and read by computer.

Where the identity card is issued by the State, it asserts a unique single civil identity for a person, thus defining that person's identity purely in relation to the State. New technologies allow identity cards to contain biometric information, such as photographs, face, hand or iris measurements, or fingerprints.

Other information typically present on the cards — or on the supporting database — includes full name, parents' names, address, profession, nationality in multinational states, blood type and Rhesus factor.

Legal impact

Laws usually limit who is authorized to require an identification (for example limiting it to police, immigration officers etc), though practice usually broadens the range to many public and private entities: for example, a shopkeeper or cashier may request an ID document to be shown by a client paying with a credit card or cheque. Similarly, in circumstances where law enforcement can legally ask for identification, not being able to show an ID document, though legal, may result in being taken to a police station for further identification, depending on the jurisdictions. This can lead to functionality creep whereby carrying a card becomes de facto if not de jure compulsory.

In many cases, other forms of documentation such as a driver's license, passport, or Medicare card serve a similar function, identifying the bearer in a variety of contexts. However, possession of these documents is typically optional from a legal point of view.

Not carrying a required identity card can be beneficial for people who wish to avoid detection, such as innocent citizens who value their privacy. It may also help in some illegal dealings; for instance, in certain countries, the procedures for deporting illegal immigrants whose age, identity or nationality cannot be formally established are more complex than those for whom they can be readily asserted, giving the illegal immigrant more time to prepare his or her defense.

Arguments for and against identity cards

Argumentation about identity cards is largely limited to anglosaxon countries. In most countries where an ID system is present, it is seen as a commonplace item that nobody argues about.

Especially in the USA and the United Kingdom, state-issued compulsory identity cards are a source of great controversy. Some people regard them as a gross infringement of privacy and civil liberties, whilst others regard them as uncontroversial.

Usually, mainstream criticism is actually directed towards possibilities of extensive abuse of identity documents; central databases with storage of sensitive data are especially feared. While such systems have been proposed in some countries, in most countries with identification documents they have not been implemented.

In favour

Supporters of identity cards argue that:

  • identity cards would be a useful administrative tool that will increase government efficiency and cut down on crime;
  • opposition to identity cards would be caused by the necessity of having "something to hide"; opponents counter that also law-abiding citizens can want information to remain confidential for various reasons (as a woman trying to make her whereabouts unknown to a violent ex-husband);
  • if the State doesn't issue identity cards, private companies will require equivalent documents, such as a driver license, which are not properly suited for identity purposes;
  • crimes such as identity theft would be drastically reduced, and are indeed unknown in countries where identity cards are required to open a bank account.


Economic and social liberals have a generally negative attitude towards identity cards, on the principle that if society already works adequately without them, they should not be imposed by government, on the principle that "the government that governs best, governs least". Some opponents have pointed out that extensive lobbying for identity cards has been undertaken, in countries without compulsory identity cards, by IT companies who will be likely to reap rich rewards in the event of an identity card scheme being implemented.

Very often, opposition to identity cards is born out of the suspicion that they will be used to track anyone's movements and private life, possibly endangering one's privacy; for instance, a person will probably not want others to know he or she is attending meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous. In countries currently using identity cards, there is no mechanism for this. However the proposed British ID card will involve a series of linked databases, to be managed by the private sector. Managing disparate linked systems with a range of institutions and any number of personnel having access to them is a potential security disaster in the making.[1] (

Opponents argument also that some nations require the card to be carried at all times. This is not necessarily impractical, as an ID is no more cumbersome than a credit card. However, opponents point out that a requirement to carry an identity card at all times can lead to arbitrary requests from card controllers (such as the police). Even where there is no legal requirement to carry the card, functionality creep could lead to de facto compulsion to carry.

Some hard-line opponents resort to extreme comparisons with totalitarian governments, which issued identity cards to their populations, and used them oppressively.

However, these argumentations are considered extremistic and tantamount to paranoia, and disregarding that actually most democratic countries had and have identity cards.

Identity cards in Britain

Main article: British national identity card.

Compulsory identity cards were first issued in the United Kingdom during World War I, and abandoned in 1919. They were re-introduced in World War II, but were abandoned seven years after the end of that war, in 1952, due to widespread public resentment culminating in a court case of Willcock v Muckle, where Clarence Henry Willcock refused to supply his card after being stopped by a policeman for a routine driving infraction. Although he lost the case, the court concurred with his view that identity cards had become inappropriate.

Nevertheless, several Home Secretaries have since proposed reintroducing identity cards, under various pretexts and, in 2003, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett stated that the British government intends to introduce a national identity card scheme based on biometric technology, together with a database to track the resident population, to be made compulsory by 2013. To that end, the Identity Cards Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on November 29, 2004.

Identity cards in the United States

Main article: Identity documents in the United States.

There is no true national identity card in the United States of America, in the sense that there is no federal agency with nationwide jurisdiction that directly issues such cards to all American citizens. All legislative attempts to create one have failed due to tenacious opposition from libertarian and conservative politicians, who regard the national identity card as the mark of a totalitarian society.

Identity cards worldwide

According to Privacy International, as of 1996, around 100 countries had compulsory identity cards. They also stated that "virtually no common law country has a card".

For the people of Western Sahara, pre-1975 Spanish cards are the main proof that they were Saharaui citizens as opposed to recent Moroccan colonists. They would be thus allowed to vote in an eventual self-determination referendum.

Some Basque nationalist organizations are issuing para-official identity cards (Euskal Nortasun Agiria) as a means to reject the nationality notions implied by Spanish and French compulsory documents. Then, they try to use the ENA instead of the official document.

Countries with compulsory identity cards

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Spanish DNI specimen
The compulsory character may apply only after a certain age.

Note: the term "compulsory" may have different meanings and implications in different countries. Often, a ticket can be given for being found without one's identification document, or in some cases a person may even be arrested until the identity is ascertained. In practice, random controls are rare, except in police states.

Also Egypt, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Countries without compulsory identity cards

Australia ("citizenship certificate"), Finland, France, Japan, Sweden (since 2005), and Switzerland have non-compulsory identity cards.

Denmark, Norway, the United States, and Iceland have no official national identity cards.

Note: As noted above, certain countries do not have national ID cards, but have other official documents that play the same role in practice (e.g. driver's license for the United States). While a country may not make it de jure compulsory to own or carry an identity document, it may be de facto strongly recommended to do so in order to facilitate certain procedures.

Non-national identity cards

Some companies and government departments issue ID cards for security purposes, they may also be proof of a qualification. For example, all taxi drivers in the UK carry ID cards. See also:: warrant card. (Picture of proof-of-age ID card) (

See also

External links

es:Documento Nacional de Identidad he:תעודת זהות ja:身分証明書 pl:Dowd osobisty pt:Carteira de identidade


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