Biometric passports, or e-passports, contain much of the same information as a standard passport, but they are more technologically advanced. A biometric passport contains an RFID chip that holds more specific information than just your name, date of birth, and country of origin. Biometric passports also contain biometrics, such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans. These e-passports are more convenient and can protect against identity theft and fraud. Biometric passports are extremely secure. A biometric passport and a special ETIAS authorization will be necessary in as little as a year from now to travel to Europe from the United States. Today, e-passports are increasingly more widely accepted, beneficial, secure, and necessary for traveling globally.
What is a biometric passport?
A biometric passport is a technologically advanced passport containing a chip that holds specific biometric information. This e-passport is sophisticated and secure. The RFID microchip is embedded into the passport. Often, the chip in the passport is so small that it is undetectable. Passports are needed to travel between countries and identify you. A biometric passport adds an extra layer of security by containing specific biometric information that can include facial mapping for facial recognition software, fingerprints, or iris scans. Biometrics are physical characteristics that are unique to you and can be used to authenticate identity, Homeland Security explains.
Advantages of an e-passport
An e-passport is convenient and easy to use. Waivers and visas can be electronically linked to the biometric passport, so there is less paper to print and carry around. It ultimately makes it easier to keep track of everything. These are also scannable passports that can reduce time spent waiting in lines to have the passport checked. Many biometric passport countries have electronic passport gates that read the passport’s chip to quickly verify your identity without the need for a manual check. The biggest advantage of a biometric passport, however, is the enhanced security. Biometrics are specific to each person. They are much harder to fake, hack, or steal. This is important, as identity theft and fraud are major concerns, with 4.7 million reports identified by the FTC in 2020. The chip in an e-passport is technologically advanced and uses enhanced security features to prevent data “skimming” or unauthorized reading. Homeland Security details the following advantages of an e-passport:
- Protection against identity theft
- Secure identification of passport holder
- Privacy protection
- Harder to alter or forge for illegal entry into the country
Biometric passport vs. standard passport
Both a normal, or standard, passport and a biometric passport contain your basic identifying information. The difference is the chip in the e-passport that also contains biometric information. Biometric passports do not have to be read mechanically or manually. Instead, they can be scanned from a short distance. Passports issued in the United States since August 2007 are all electronic passports with the special integrated chip embedded into the back cover of the passport book. This chip has a unique chip identification number and allows for contactless reading of the information by specialized chip readers at a close distance.
Information contained in a biometric passport A biometric passport will contain the following:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Photograph (often in a biometric form, such as a 3D map of the face that can be used in facial recognition software)
- Biographical information, such as birthplace
- Biometric information, which can include fingerprints or iris scans
- Unique chip identification number
- Digital signature that protects the stored data from being altered
How an e-passport works
A biometric passport has a microprocessor chip that is embedded into the passport and contains specific information that is unique to the passport holder. Generally, it is the digital image that is actually stored directly on the chip. Then, this image is compared against the biometric information and checked at an electronic border control system, or an e-border. The traveler will look into a screen while scanning the e-passport, which will cross-check facial measurements with those stored on the passport chip. The e-passport chip works much like a credit card that contains an integrated chip using digital signature technology to verify the authenticity of the information that is stored on it. The chip in the passport also uses PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) technology, which helps to prevent alteration of the data contained on the chip. This encryption key is an added layer of security.
Biometric passport security
A biometric passport is not foolproof, but it is hard to falsify, steal, or alter due to several systems and mechanisms in place to protect the data. These include the following:
- Active Authentication (AA): This helps to prevent cloning of biometric passports.
- Passive Authentication (PA): This detects chip modifications.
- Basic Access Control (BAC): This works to protect the channel of communication between the passport chip and the e-passport reader.
- Extended Access Control (EAC): This is an extra safeguard for iris scans and fingerprint data.
- Metallic Mesh: This RF blocking material is embedded into the passport booklet to prevent “skimming” or unauthorized reading of the passport, as it must be opened to be scanned.
- Random UID (RUID) Feature: This works to prevent tracking by issuing a new and random UID every time the chip is accessed and authorization to the data is granted.
Global use for biometric passports
Many countries around the world are moving to e-passports, and some are requiring them for entry. The United States, for example, requires travelers entering the country via the Visa Waiver Program to have and use an e-passport. Countries such as Slovakia have been using biometric passports for many years. Similarly, travelers wishing to enter Europe after the end of 2022 will be required to use a biometric passport and obtain an ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) visa waiver. You’ll need to fill out an online form that includes personal information and security questions. Then, that waiver can be linked to a biometric passport, making for easy travel.
Biometrics. (June 2021). U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
New Data Shows FTC Received 2.2 Million Fraud Reports from Consumers in 2020. (February 2021). Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
E-Passports. (March 2020). U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
E-Passport: All About the Electronic Passport. U.S. Passport Service.
ETIAS for Americans. (2021). ETIAS.