What is a Biometric Passport?

biometric passport

IN THIS SECTION

Biometric passports, also known as e-passports, are travel documents that include an embedded microchip containing biometric information, such as the passport holder’s facial features, fingerprints, and iris scans. They are designed to enhance security and streamline the identification process at border controls.

In the United Kingdom, biometric passports have been issued as standard since 2010 to improve travel safety and efficiency.

In this guide, we look at how biometric passports work and what you need to do to apply for one in the UK.

 

Section A: What is a Biometric Passport?

 

A biometric passport, often referred to as an e-passport, is a travel document that contains an embedded electronic microchip. This microchip stores biometric information about the passport holder, which can include facial recognition data, fingerprints, and iris scans. The primary purpose of a biometric passport is to verify the identity of the traveller more accurately and securely than traditional passports.

The technology behind biometric passports includes:

 

1. Embedded Microchip

 

The key feature of a biometric passport is its embedded microchip, which is typically located within the cover of the passport. This chip is an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip that stores the passport holder’s biometric data.

The chip can be read by special scanners at border control points. When the passport is scanned, the biometric data stored on the chip is compared with the traveller’s physical characteristics to confirm their identity.

 

2. Biometric Data

 

High-resolution digital photographs of the passport holder are taken and stored on the chip. Facial recognition software can analyse these images to verify the identity of the traveller.

Many biometric passports include fingerprint data. Travellers may have their fingerprints scanned during the application process, and this information is stored on the microchip.

Some countries also include iris scan data in their biometric passports. The unique patterns in the coloured part of the eye are captured and stored.

 

3. Security Features

 

The data on the microchip is protected by digital signatures to prevent unauthorised access and tampering. This ensures that the information is secure and cannot be altered without detection.

The information stored on the chip is encrypted, providing an additional layer of security. Only authorised border control systems can decrypt and read the data.

 

4. Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ)

 

In addition to the microchip, biometric passports contain a Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ) on the identity page. The MRZ includes the passport holder’s details in a format that can be quickly scanned and processed by border control systems. The MRZ complements the data stored on the chip, allowing for quick and efficient verification of the traveller’s identity and passport validity.

 

Section B: How Does a Biometric Passport Work?

 

Biometric passports incorporate various technologies, which together help to enhance security, reduce the risk of fraud, and facilitate faster processing at border controls.

 

1. Biometric Verification Technologies

The advanced biometric technologies used in biometric passports include:

 

a. Facial Recognition

A camera captures the traveller’s face, and facial recognition software analyses key facial features such as the distance between the eyes, the shape of the cheekbones, and the contour of the lips.

The captured image is compared with the facial image stored on the passport’s chip. This method is highly reliable due to the uniqueness of facial features.

 

b. Fingerprint Scanning

Many countries, including the USA, Germany, and Japan, incorporate fingerprint scans in their biometric passports and use the data for fingerprint verification at border checkpoints.

In practice, this involves the traveller placing their fingers on a fingerprint scanner, which captures the unique patterns of ridges and valleys on their fingertips.

The scanned fingerprints are matched against the fingerprint data stored on the chip. Fingerprints are highly distinctive, making this method effective for identity verification.

 

c. Iris Scans

Iris scans are not as widely used as fingerprints in biometric passports. Travellers are advised to check the local rules of the country they are travelling to confirm if iris scanning is a requirement.

Where they are used, the traveller looks into an iris scanner, which captures an image of the iris. The scanner analyses unique patterns in the coloured part of the eye.

The captured iris patterns are compared with the data stored on the chip. Iris patterns are unique to each individual, providing a robust verification method.

 

Each country’s specific requirements and procedures can vary, so it’s important for travellers to be aware of the biometric data collected and used in the countries they are visiting.

 

2. Using Biometric Passports to Travel

 

Biometric passports leverage advanced technology to streamline and secure the identity verification process at various stages of travel.

When applying for a biometric passport, travellers provide biometric data such as a high-resolution photograph. In some countries, fingerprints and iris scans may also be taken. This data is securely stored on the passport’s embedded microchip.

During check-in, the passport is scanned, and the biometric data stored on the chip is verified against the traveller’s current biometric characteristics. Many airports offer self-service kiosks where travellers can scan their biometric passports. In the UK, these are known as eGates. The kiosk reads the data from the microchip and verifies the identity, allowing for quicker check-in and boarding pass issuance.

At security checkpoints, the passport is scanned, and the traveller may be required to look into a camera for facial recognition or place their fingers on a fingerprint scanner. The system compares the scanned biometric data with the data stored on the microchip.

Cameras capture the traveller’s facial image and use facial recognition software to match it with the stored image on the passport’s chip. This step ensures the person presenting the passport is its legitimate holder.

If fingerprints are used, the traveller places their fingers on a fingerprint scanner. The system checks the scanned fingerprints against those stored on the chip for a match.

In cases where iris scans are used, the traveller looks into an iris scanner, which verifies the unique patterns in their irises against the data on the chip.

Many airports now feature automated border control gates. In the UK, these are called ePassport gates (eGates). Travellers insert their biometric passports into a reader, which scans the chip and reads the stored data. The gates then prompt the traveller to undergo a biometric check, usually involving facial recognition.

Where automated gates are not available, or further verification is needed, immigration officers manually inspect the passport and conduct a biometric check using dedicated scanners.

At the boarding gate, biometric verification may be performed again. This typically involves a quick scan of the passport and a biometric check, ensuring that the person boarding the aircraft is the passport holder.

 

3. Privacy Considerations

 

Privacy is a key consideration in relation to the collection and use of biometric data for UK biometric passports. Authorities are obligated to ensure that biometric data is handled with the highest levels of security and integrity, maintaining the trust of passport holders.

All biometric data stored on the passport’s microchip is encrypted, ensuring it cannot be easily accessed or tampered with. This encryption is complemented by digital signatures, which verify the authenticity and integrity of the data, preventing unauthorised modifications.

Access to the biometric data is tightly controlled, with only authorised border control systems and personnel allowed to read the information stored on the passport chip. The collection, storage, and use of this data comply with the UK’s data protection laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), ensuring robust protection of personal information.

The biometric data is collected solely for the purpose of verifying the passport holder’s identity and facilitating secure travel, adhering to the principle of purpose limitation. The data is retained only for the duration necessary to meet legal and operational requirements, after which it is securely disposed of to prevent misuse.

For the purposes of transparency and consent, applicants are fully informed about the collection and use of their biometric data and must provide consent as part of the application process. Detailed privacy notices are provided, explaining how the data will be used, stored, and protected, ensuring applicants understand their rights and the measures in place to safeguard their information.

 

Section C: Benefits of Biometric Passports

 

Biometric passports offer numerous advantages over traditional passports, making international travel more secure, efficient, and convenient. Key benefits include:

 

1. Enhanced Security

 

Biometric passports significantly reduce the risk of identity theft and passport fraud. The biometric data, such as facial recognition, fingerprints, and iris scans, are unique to each individual and difficult to forge or alter.

The embedded microchip in biometric passports is designed to be tamper-proof. The data is encrypted and digitally signed, making it extremely challenging for unauthorised parties to access or modify the information.

Border control systems can quickly verify the authenticity of a biometric passport by reading the digital signatures and comparing them with the issuing authority’s records. This ensures that the passport has not been altered or counterfeited.

 

2. Faster Processing Times at Border Controls

 

Many airports now feature ABC gates that allow travellers to pass through border control quickly. By scanning the passport and performing a biometric check, these gates streamline the process, reducing wait times.

Biometric verification methods, such as facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, are fast and efficient. They can quickly confirm a traveller’s identity, speeding up the overall process at security checkpoints and immigration controls.

 

3. Improved Convenience for Travellers

 

Biometric passports enable the use of self-service kiosks for check-in and other airport procedures. Travelers can scan their passports and undergo biometric verification without the need for manual intervention, making the process more convenient and user-friendly.

The automation of identity verification reduces the need for manual checks by immigration officers, allowing travellers to move through airports more smoothly and with fewer delays.

 

4. Global Acceptance and Standardisation

 

Biometric passports comply with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). This global standardisation ensures that biometric passports are recognised and accepted worldwide, facilitating international travel.

With the widespread adoption of biometric passports, travellers can enjoy a more consistent and reliable experience across different countries and airports. This uniformity simplifies the travel process and enhances the overall travel experience.

 

5. Enhanced Privacy and Data Protection

 

The biometric data stored on the microchip is encrypted, providing robust protection against unauthorised access. This ensures that personal information remains secure throughout the travel process.

Only authorised border control systems and personnel can access and read the biometric data on the passport. This controlled access further safeguards the traveller’s personal information.

 

6. Future-Proof Technology

 

As technology evolves, biometric passports can incorporate new and improved biometric verification methods. This future-proofing ensures that biometric passports remain at the forefront of travel security and efficiency.

Biometric passports can be integrated with other security and identity management systems, such as national ID databases and visa management systems. This integration enhances overall security and streamlines various travel-related processes.

 

Section D: How to Apply for a Biometric Passport in the UK

 

Applying for a biometric passport in the UK is a relatively straightforward process, provided you meet the eligibility criteria and follow the procedural requirements.

 

1. Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for a British Passport

 

Step 1: Meet Eligibility Requirements

The primary requirement for obtaining a UK passport is holding British citizenship. This can be acquired through birth, descent, registration, or naturalisation:

 

a. Birth: If you were born in the UK before 1 January 1983, you are typically a British citizen.

b. Descent: If you were born outside the UK but one of your parents was a British citizen at the time of your birth, you may be eligible.

c. Registration: This applies to individuals who have acquired British citizenship through registration. This often includes children born to British citizens abroad or to non-British parents who have settled status.

d. Naturalisation: Adults who have lived in the UK for a certain period and meet the legal requirements can apply for naturalisation to become British citizens.

 

You may also apply for a British passport if you have the right to reside in the UK.

 

Step 2: Gather Supporting Documents

Your application must be accompanied by supporting documentation to verify your identity and eligibility.

Acceptable forms of identification include your birth certificate, adoption certificate, or naturalisation certificate. If you are renewing your passport, your previous passport serves as proof of identity. Additionally, if applicable, a marriage or civil partnership certificate should be provided to reflect any name changes.

You must also submit two recent passport-sized photographs that meet the UK passport photo requirements, including specifications on size, background, and expression.

The photo must be clear and in focus and must be in colour, providing a true depiction of your features. The image must not be altered by any computer software. It must be at least 600 pixels wide and 750 pixels, with a file size of at least 50KB and no more than 10MB

Your expression should be neutral with your mouth closed, eyes open and visible, and there should be no shadows, reflections, or red-eye in the photographs.

Depending on your circumstances, additional supporting documents may be needed. For example, if you are applying on behalf of a child, a parental consent form is required. Similarly, if your name has changed due to marriage or other reasons, you will need to provide relevant documentation such as a marriage certificate or deed poll.

If you are renewing your passport, you will also need to send off your current, or previously expired, passport.

 

Step 3: Complete the Application Form

Visit the official UK government website for passport applications (gov.uk/apply-renew-passport). Create an account or log in if you already have one.

If you prefer, you can request a paper application form (Form LS01) from the Passport Advice Line or pick one up from a Post Office that offers the Passport Check and Send service.

The application requires you to provide comprehensive personal information. This includes your full name, date of birth, place of birth, and, if applicable, your National Insurance number. Contact information, such as your address, phone number, and email, must also be provided to facilitate communication regarding your application.

 

Step 4: Provide Biometric Information

Ensure your passport photographs meet the specific requirements, such as size, background colour, and facial expression.

If applying online, you may need to upload your digital photograph as part of the application process.

 

Step 5: Pay the Application Fee

The fee for a standard adult passport is £88.50 for online applications or £100 for paper applications. Fees may vary for different services, such as expedited processing.

 

Step 6: Submit Your Application

Review your application, make the payment, and submit it online.

If using a paper application, mail your completed form, supporting documents, photographs, and payment to the address specified on the form. Use a secure postal service to track your application.

 

Step 7: Track Your Application

After submission, you can track the progress of your application online using the reference number provided.

 

Step 8: Receive Your Biometric Passport

Once your application is approved, your new biometric passport will be sent to you by secure delivery. Your old passport, if you have one, will be returned separately.

 

2. Verifying Identity

 

For most passport applications made online, including standard adult passport renewals, you will need to provide the name and email address of someone who can confirm your identity. They will receive an email from the HM Passport Office and will need to follow the instructions to verify your details online.

A countersignature is required on the printed paper application form and one of your passport photos in the following circumstances:

 

a. First Adult Passport Application: If you are applying for your first adult passport.

b. Child Passport Application: When applying for a passport for a child under 16 years of age.

c. Lost, Stolen, or Damaged Passport: If your previous passport has been lost, stolen, or damaged.

d. Changes in Appearance: If your appearance has significantly changed and you cannot be recognised from your existing passport or an older photograph.

 

To verify someone’s identity, the individual must be over 18 years old, they must live in the UK and have a current UK passport themselves. They must also have known you for at least two years in a professional or personal capacity, not just through work.

The person verifying your identity cannot be a family member or someone living at the same address. A full list of acceptable professions for countersignatories is available on the UK government website.

 

3. UK Passport Application Costs

 

British passport application fees vary, depending on whether you apply online or use a paper form. For most adult applicants, a new British passport costs £88.50. The full fees are as follows:

 

Applicant Apply Online Apply By Paper Form
Adult (16 and over) standard 34-page passport £88.50 £100
Adult (16 and over) 54-page frequent traveller passport £100.50 £112
Child (under 16) standard 34-page passport £57.50 £69
Child (under 16) 54-page frequent traveller passport £69.50 £81
Passport for people born on or before 2 September 1929 Free Free

 

 

 

Additional fees may apply for expedited services or special delivery options. The Post Office also offers services, such as Check and Send, which cost extra.

 

4. British Passport Application Times

 

The processing time for a British passport application can vary depending on several factors, including the type of application being made and the workload of the passport office processing the application.

Currently,  a first adult passport (16-69 years old) typically takes around 5 weeks from the date the HM Passport Office receives your application (assuming an interview isn’t required). Processing times for standard renewals can be around 3 weeks for online applications with verification or slightly longer for paper applications. 3 weeks is the usual timeframe, but it can take longer, especially during peak periods.

Processing times for other types of applications (child passports, replacements) can vary, so it’s best to check the UK government website for specific details.

Online applications with identity verification might be slightly faster than paper applications.

First-time adult applicants may need to attend an interview to confirm their identity, which can add extra time to the process.

 

Section E: Summary

 

Now issued as standard in most countries, biometric passports represent a significant development in international travel, offering benefits such as automated border control, faster processing times, robust protection of personal information and greater convenience for travellers.

In the UK, you can apply for a British biometric passport on the official UK Government website or in-person at a local Post Office offering passport application services.

 

Section F: FAQs About Biometric Passports

 

What is a biometric passport?
A biometric passport, also known as an e-passport, is a travel document that includes an embedded electronic microchip containing biometric data such as facial recognition, fingerprints, and sometimes iris scans. This technology enhances security and facilitates faster identity verification at border controls.

 

Why do I need a biometric passport?
Biometric passports offer enhanced security features that reduce the risk of identity theft and passport fraud. They also allow for quicker processing times at airports and border controls, making travel more convenient and efficient.

 

How do I apply for a biometric passport in the UK?
You can apply for a biometric passport online through the official UK government website or by filling out a paper application form available at certain Post Offices. You will need to provide proof of identity, citizenship, two passport-sized photographs, and pay the application fee.

 

What documents do I need to apply for a biometric passport?
To apply for a biometric passport, you will need proof of British citizenship (e.g., birth certificate, registration or naturalisation certificate), proof of identity (e.g., current passport, UK driving licence), two recent passport-sized photographs and additional documents if applicable (e.g., parental consent form for minors, name change documents).

 

How long does it take to get a biometric passport?
The processing time for a biometric passport can vary. Typically, it takes around 3-6 weeks to receive your passport after submitting your application. Expedited services are available for an additional fee if you need your passport sooner.

 

What biometric data is collected for a biometric passport?
Biometric passports collect facial recognition data, and in some cases, fingerprints and iris scans. This data is stored on an encrypted microchip embedded in the passport.

 

How is my biometric data protected?
Your biometric data is securely stored on an encrypted microchip in the passport. The data is protected by digital signatures and can only be accessed by authorised border control systems and personnel. The UK government complies with data protection laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to ensure your data is kept safe.

 

Can children have biometric passports?
Yes, children can have biometric passports. The application process is similar to that for adults, but a parental consent form is required for applicants under 16 years old.

 

What should I do if my biometric passport is lost or stolen?
If your biometric passport is lost or stolen, you should report it immediately to the UK Passport Office and your local police department. You will need to apply for a replacement passport, providing necessary documentation and paying the relevant fees.

 

How do I update my biometric data in my passport?
If your biometric data (such as your appearance or fingerprints) has changed significantly, you may need to apply for a new passport to update the information. Follow the standard application process and provide current biometric data.

 

Are biometric passports mandatory for international travel?
While not all countries require biometric passports, having one can significantly expedite the travel process and enhance security. Many countries, including the UK, have adopted biometric passports as the standard for international travel documents.

 

What are the photo requirements for a biometric passport?
The image must not be altered by any computer software. It must be at least 600 pixels wide and 750 pixels, with a file size of at least 50KB and no more than 10MB. The image must be clear and in focus, with a plain light-coloured background, without any shadows, reflections, or red-eye. In the photo, you must show a neutral expression, mouth closed, and be free from head coverings (unless for religious or medical reasons).

 

Section G: Glossary of Terms Related to Biometric Passports

 

Biometric Passport: A travel document that includes an embedded microchip containing biometric data, such as facial recognition, fingerprints, and sometimes iris scans, to verify the holder’s identity.

Biometric Data: Unique physical characteristics used to identify an individual, such as facial features, fingerprints, and iris patterns.

Microchip: An electronic chip embedded in a biometric passport that stores the passport holder’s biometric data and other relevant information.

Facial Recognition: A biometric technology that uses a digital image of a person’s face to identify or verify their identity by comparing it to the stored image on the passport’s microchip.

Fingerprint Scanning: A biometric technology that captures and analyses the unique patterns of an individual’s fingerprints for identity verification.

Iris Scan: A biometric technology that captures the unique patterns in the coloured part of an individual’s eye (iris) for identity verification.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification): A technology used in biometric passports to wirelessly transmit data stored on the microchip to authorised scanners at border control points.

Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ): A section of the passport containing encoded personal information that can be quickly scanned and read by border control systems.

Encryption: A method of converting data into a coded format to prevent unauthorised access, used to protect the biometric data stored on a passport’s microchip.

Digital Signature: A secure digital code attached to electronic data to verify its authenticity and integrity, ensuring that the information on the microchip has not been altered.

Automated Border Control (ABC) Gates: Automated systems at airports and border controls that use biometric verification to allow travellers to pass through quickly and securely.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation): A regulation in EU law that governs the protection of personal data and privacy, ensuring that biometric data is handled securely and responsibly.

Passport Photo Requirements: Specific guidelines for passport photographs, including size, background, and appearance, to ensure consistency and accuracy in facial recognition.

Proof of Identity: Documents required to verify an applicant’s identity, such as a birth certificate, current passport, or UK driving license.

Proof of British Citizenship: Documents required to verify an applicant’s British citizenship, such as a birth certificate, registration or naturalisation certificate, or previous passport.

Parental Consent Form: A form required for applicants under 16 years old, signed by a parent or legal guardian, granting permission for the child to obtain a passport.

Name Change Documents: Legal documents, such as a deed poll or marriage certificate, required to verify a change in the applicant’s name.

Passport Application Centres: Designated locations where biometric data collection and application submission can be conducted, often equipped with necessary scanning technology.

 

 

Author

Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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