Travel documents and other formalities

Arun Vajpey

I always like to look at life on board the Titanic as microcosm of how life in general used to be at that time. One of the more obvious and interesting aspects was how people from all over the world but Europe in particular, were moving to America, then seen as the land of opportunity.

Based on this situation, my question is what sort of documentation or other evidence was required for a given person to migrate from Europe to America in those days? To illustrate a case in point, supposing a hypothetical man named Patrick O'Malley, a healthy 24-year old single man from County Cork in Ireland decided to move to New York in search of a better life, what would he need to do?
Basically he would need to do nothing more than buy a ticket for the transatlantic crossing. No passports or visas in those days, but he would need to answer some basic questions posed by the ticket agent to establish who he was, where he came from, where he was going and why, and that he was not likely to become a burden to American taxpayers - in other words he needed to be physically and mentally healthy and, if adult, immediately employable. He would not (until 1917) need to be literate but he would need to state that he was neither a convicted criminal nor an anarchist nor a polygamist, and was carrying enough money to support himself for a few weeks while looking for work. The best answer, btw, when asked "Are you a polygamist?" or "Are you an anarchist?" was "What's that?". Those who answered 'no' were regarded with suspicion and subjected to further questioning! All would be subjected also to a very basic medical examination before setting sail. They would then be issued with an inspection card for presentation at Ellis Island in New York. Reputable shipping lines did not neglect these preliminaries because they faced financial penalties when potential immigrants were rejected at Ellis Island following similar but somewhat more thorough medical and legal inspections at the port of entry. Only about 2% were rejected and sent home from Ellis Island, but quite often at least one other family member elected to go with them. Young women traveling unaccompanied by a male relative were generally retained at Ellis Island until 'collected' by a male family member already resident in the US.

1st and 2nd Class passengers who were not US citizens were generally regarded as sufficiently wealthy not to be a likely burden on the US taxpayer, so they were required to undergo very basic questioning on board but did not need to attend Ellis Island unless they were suspected of illegal activity or of carrying contagious disease.
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The most notable addition in later years was of course: "Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" They also added a few questions designed to establish whether the potential immigrants actually knew in which country they had arrived, like "Who was our first President?"; "What are the colors of our flag?" and "What is the 4th July?" For that last question, my answer "the day after the 3rd July" would have been probably unacceptable!
In 1912, another condition for entry to the USA was that you couldn't be Chinese, under the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was so strictly enforced that the six surviving Chinese passengers never set foot on USA soil. When they arrived on Carpathia, it was found that they were intended to join a ship called Annetta, which was in New York. They were taken by boat to Annetta, thus complying with the law.