In an age of electronic boarding passes and digital photos, the passport is perhaps the ultimate travel totem, a portal to other places and a record of trips past. Given the little blue book’s significance for devoted travelers, it might seem that the man with perhaps the biggest passport of them all—it once clocked in at 331 pages, dwarfing the reported world's largest—would think that January 1, 2016 was the end of an era.
The date was a sad one for many passport holders, who were forced to stop adding additional pages to their travel documents due to the Department of State’s decision to restrict extra visa pages. U.S. citizens used to have the option to add new visa pages to their passport, but as of January 1 new passports can contain only 28 or 52 pages. The restriction, which the Department of State says “was made to enhance the security of the passport and to abide by international passport standards,” is thought to be motivated by concerns about visa fraud.
But for Eric Oborski, the man who may own the world’s largest passport, January 1 wasn’t a day of mourning. His passport—which for now contains “only” 192 pages, nearly 100 more than the other contender for world’s largest—has now passed into the realm of hallowed relic.
“When it actually happened, I realized this now has historical meaning because I doubt anyone else has the passport like I’ve got, which will never happen again,” Oborski told Smithsonian.com with an edge of nostalgic pride. Now, he says, his passport is “something that can never ever be duplicated or repeated, no matter what anybody wants to do.”
How does a traveler amass over 1,400 pages of passport during their lifetime—especially given that the maximum number allowed used to be capped at 100? The answer lies in a loophole that only Oborski, a world traveler and travel agency owner, could exploit.
Oborski first caught the travel bug on a trip to Japan after he graduated high school in 1965. His return trip took him through the Philippines, Hong Kong, Russia, Poland and Europe—and it never really stopped. Enamored with world travel, Oborski took a translation job, then started a business as a travel agent booking and running tours to Asia. Unlimited free flights on Japan Airlines came next, and with them a whole new perspective on travel.
Some people might balk at a trip across town for dinner, but the gift of unlimited free air travel changed Oborski’s perspective. “I would fly to Tokyo, have dinner and come back,” he recalls. “I used to fly to Hong Kong and I got free hotels and free air from almost everybody because I had such a unique job. I’d wake up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’ll go to Japan,’ and go there because I had the free tickets.”
All that international travel put a real strain on Oborski’s passport. That’s where the loophole comes in: At the time, U.S. citizens could take their passport to U.S. embassies to have more pages added. Oborski got to know the staff at embassies in Tokyo and Bangkok because he was there so often. They began adding pages to his passport—no questions asked. Oborski claims that the U.S. policy that no passport could have no more than three sets of extra pages was just that: a policy, not a law. Soon, his passport was spilling over with new pages, all full of stamps and visas.
According to Oborski, no one ever questioned his passports’ authenticity, even as they grew in size. Instead, immigration inspectors would pass it around, laughing at the size. “Everybody just thought it was remarkable,” he said. “I never had any problem, anywhere in the world, under any circumstance.”
Where other people put in extra pages just for bragging rights, says Oborski, he actually utilized the space. He claims that the extra pages aren’t a badge of honor—they were just part of his job. But there is pride in his voice when he describes—and shows—passports with seemingly endless numbers of pages and filled with every kind of stamp.
The flow of free tickets stopped when frequent flyer miles were introduced in 1981. But by that time, nothing could stop Oborski’s nearly constant travel. Armed with about 15 million miles, he’s been traveling the world for free ever since. “I only have 5 million left now,” he notes ruefully. He tells Smithsonian.com that as the books got bigger, so too did his sense of adventure and belief in the enlightenment of travel.
For Oborski, each passport now serves as an encyclopedia of life, tracking his movements for both business and pleasure. “Every stamp tells a story,” he says as he reminiscences about his greatest trips and a few not-so-wonderful ones. Oborski may not be able to add new pages to his mega-passport, but he still plans to make use of every square inch of each passport book. And he encourages everyone to aim for just as many stamps as he has—because the only way to learn about the world, he says, is to experience it firsthand.