Biometric Passports Explained: How E-Passports Work

A pair of blue biometric e-passports on a white background

What is a Biometric E-passport?

A biometric passport, also known as an electronic passport, e-passport, or digital passport, uses biometrics to authenticate the identity of travelers. Biometrics refers to unique physical characteristics, like fingerprints or facial patterns, that can be used to verify an individual’s identity.

E-passports contain an electronic chip that stores the same information that is printed on the passport’s data page – name, date of birth, passport number, etc. – along with biometric information. This biometric information is usually a digital photo of the passport holder.

When the passport is scanned, facial recognition technology can match the traveler to the digital photo stored on the chip, providing an additional layer of security and identity verification.

Advantages of a Biometric Passport

The advantage of using biometrics on passports is that it helps prevent passport fraud and makes it much more difficult for imposters to use stolen or fake passports. The biometric information acts as an unalterable record of the passport holder’s identity.

E-passports are also more durable than paper passports and provide faster processing times at immigration checkpoints.

What’s the Difference between Biometric Vs. Non-Biometric Passports?

The main difference between biometric and non-biometric passports is that biometric passports contain an electronic chip that stores biometric data, such as a digital photograph or fingerprint scan of the passport holder. This allows the passport holder’s identity to be verified through biometrics.

Non-biometric passports, also known as traditional or regular passports, do not contain any biometrics. They only have basic identifying information printed on the passport pages, such as name, date of birth, passport number, etc. This information is static and cannot be used to definitively link the passport to the holder.

While non-biometric passports may have security features like holograms to prevent tampering and forgery, there are no biometrics involved. Immigration officers have to manually match the passport holder to the printed information and photo in the passport. This makes non-biometric passports more vulnerable to fraud than biometric passports.

Additionally, non-biometric passports do not allow for automated identity verification. They have to be manually checked by immigration officers, which leads to slower processing times at borders and airports compared to using e-passports.

Is Your Passport Biometric?

To find out if your passport is biometric, first check what kind of passport you have. Most passports issued after 2006 are e-passports embedded with biometric technology.

How Do I Know If  My US Passport Is Biometric?

If you have a U.S. passport, all versions issued after 2007 are biometric passports. You can tell by the symbol on the front cover – new U.S. biometric passports have a printed chip symbol on the front to represent the embedded electronic chip.

Inside the passport, there will also be a Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) at the bottom of the identification page. The MRZ will have << and >> symbols framing the code. This 2-line code includes your biographic information that can be scanned and matched to the data stored on the electronic chip.

If your passport meets these requirements, you can rest assured that you have a biometric passport. Keep in mind biometric passports may look slightly different depending on the issuing country, but will contain an e-chip symbol and MRZ.

If your passport was issued many years ago, it may be a non-biometric version. You can consider applying for a new biometric e-passport which offers greater security and convenience while travelling internationally. Contact your country’s passport authority to inquire about how to apply for and obtain an updated biometric passport.

What Are the Features of a Biometric Passport?

The main biometric feature of most biometric passports is a digital photograph of the passport holder. This digital photo is scanned and stored on the electronic chip embedded in the passport.

When the passport is scanned at an airport or border crossing, facial recognition technology reads the digital photo on the chip and matches it to the live image of the person presenting the passport. This provides a way to verify the passport was issued to the person using it.

Some countries additionally store a fingerprint scan as a second biometric identifier. The fingerprint can be matched against a scan taken from the traveler at the port of entry for another way to authenticate identity.

To support the use of biometrics, e-passports also contain a small contactless chip, antennae to communicate with readers, and the Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) that enables automated identity verification.

The chip securely stores the biometric information and the MRZ allows passport data like name, date of birth, passport number, expiration date, and other data to be quickly scanned.

In the future, more biometric modalities like iris scans or voice recognition could potentially be integrated into biometric passports for further identity confirmation. For now, digital photos and fingerprints represent the primary biometric technologies used.

Biometric Passport Photos

The biometric passport photo is a key component of the biometric passport. This digital photo is scanned and saved on the electronic chip embedded in the passport. Standards for biometric passport photos are very specific to ensure the photo can be used with facial recognition technology.

When taking a biometric passport photo, requirements like lighting, face positioning, and facial expression must be met precisely. Some guidelines include:

  • Head must be straight, not tilted.
  • Face should be square to the camera, not angled.
  • Neutral facial expression, mouth closed. No smiling or frowning.
  • Eyes open and clearly visible, no sunglasses.
  • No hair across eyes, eyes must be clearly visible.
  • Equal lighting on both sides of the face, no shadows.
  • Plain white or off-white background with no distracting details.

Where to get a biometric passport photo

Due to the exact requirements, you should have your biometric passport photo taken by a professional passport photo service to ensure standards are met. Many post offices, drug stores, and shipping centers offer passport photo services.

You can also upload a photo online for passport photo verification.

See Also: How to Get Your Passport Photo Online

Public Key Infrastructure

Biometric passports use a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to secure the data stored on the electronic chip embedded in the passport. PKI is a system that uses digital certificates and encryption to verify identities and protect data.

With PKI, each issuing country has a master key that is used to electronically sign and validate the biometric data written to each of its biometric passports. The signature confirms the data came from the authorized passport authority.

The master key is also used to encrypt the data written to each chip. The encrypted data can only be unlocked and read using designated passport reader devices at border control points. This prevents unauthorized access to the biometric data stored on the passport.

Additionally, the passport chip stores a digital certificate containing the passport number, issue date, expiration date, and other data. The digital certificate is signed by the issuing authority and verifies the biometric passport is authentic and official.

Altogether, the use of PKI allows biometric passports to function as secure, verifiable identification documents for international travel. PKI provides the underlying data security infrastructure.

Advantages Using the Public Key Infrastructure

Using a Public Key Infrastructure provides important advantages for the security of biometric passport systems:

  • Enhanced security – Encryption through PKI makes it virtually impossible for data on biometric passports to be hacked, skimmed or extracted.
  • Privacy – PKI provides controlled access to biometric data. Only authorized passport readers can unlock and read the encrypted data.
  • Trust – Digital signatures enable issuing authorities to electronically sign biometric data, proving it came from an official source.
  • Convenience – PKI allows rapid, automated verification of biometric data at border checkpoints, expediting processing.

Overall, PKI creates a secure, reliable and convenient infrastructure to protect sensitive biometric information while enabling smooth international travel. By leveraging PKI, biometric passports achieve advanced security and privacy of personal data.

Conclusion: Understanding the Benefits of a Biometric Passport

Biometric passports represent the new global standard in identification and security for international travel. By incorporating biometrics like digital photos and fingerprints, e-passports strengthen identity verification and reduce passport fraud like forgery or impersonation.

The encrypted electronic chip adds a sophisticated layer of security that is extremely difficult to breach. Biometrics also enable more efficient processing, replacing time-consuming manual checks with automated biometric matching.

While traditional paper passports solely relied on physical security features and human inspection, biometric passports provide cutting-edge digital identity confirmation. They allow immigration authorities to definitively link the travel document to the person carrying it.

For citizens, biometric passports provide peace of mind that their identity cannot easily be stolen. For governments, e-passports help ensure borders remain secure. As biometric technology continues to advance, e-passports will likely expand the use of biometrics to offer even greater identity assurance in the future.

Overall, biometric passports provide a secure, efficient and reliable means of verifying travelers’ identities using cutting-edge technology. Their benefits will become even more apparent as digital identification becomes critical for smooth international travel.

See Also: Passport Services – The Quick & Easy Way To Get A Passport


References:

  1. https://www.dhs.gov/biometrics
  2. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2021/02/new-data-shows-ftc-received-22-million-fraud-reports-consumers-2020
  3. https://www.dhs.gov/e-passports
  4. https://www.us-passport-service-guide.com/e-passport.html
  5. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/other-visa-categories/safety.html
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