How do biometric passports work?

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Although they still look like old passports, a biometric passport or e-passport contains a microchip in the cover with personal information stored on it. This allows border control officers to match and confirm the person’s identity by presenting the passport with the information loaded into it.

To ensure that the passport is valid, the chip must be authenticated by a public key infrastructure (PKI), making it a complicated and expensive thing to forge. This means that if all security protocols are followed correctly, it is easy to detect a fake passport. PKI is a set of regulations, procedures, and policies needed to create and manage digital certificates.

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Biometric identity data is stored on the chip

The radio frequency identification (RFID) chip in your passport includes all of your biometric data, such as a face scan matching facial recognition technology, fingerprints and an iris scan. Malaysia was the first country to issue biometric passports in 1998, and as of 2019, around 160 countries were issuing biometric passports to their citizens.

All biometric passports issued by the United States of America and countries that are part of the United States Visa Waiver Program have built-in security features to prevent unauthorized reading of any data stored on the chip. The security features of biometric passports allow the following:


  • Basic Access Control (BAC): This ensures that the passport is genuine and matches the identity of the person presenting it.
  • Extended Access Control (EAC): This protects the holder’s privacy, including fingerprints that may be stored on the biometric chip.

One of the important advantages of an electronic passport is security, because no one can steal your identity. While electronic passport chips can be detected from several feet away, the data on the chip is only accessible if the passport is within four inches of the scanner.

The convenience of an electronic passport

Having an ePassport means that in many cases, such as returning to your home country, there is no need to wait in a long line. Instead of waiting for a border patrol agent, you simply hold your passport over a scanner. The machine then matches your data with the facial technology while recording that you are back in the country.


Digital passport reader and fingerprint scanner at Newark Liberty Airport (EWR). Photo: Getty Images

Some people are opposed to biometric passports

While the security benefits and convenience of biometric passports are easy to see, many opponents wonder how they affect civil liberties. They point out that one of the main problems with biometric passports is that the data on the chip can be transferred wirelessly using RFID technology. They say the information stored on the chip is not encrypted and could easily be used by criminals.

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What to do if you lose your passport?

Despite new technology and new features, biometric passports do not contain anything that allows you to find your passport if it is lost or stolen. When you travel, keep all your information on your phone, including a photo of your passport information page.

If you have lost your passport or think it has been stolen, the first thing to do is report it to the local police. Ask them to give you an incidence report as you may need it to show to your embassy or consulate before getting a new passport or temporary travel document. The next step is to report the loss of your passports to your embassy or consulate with the following information:

  • Full name
  • Date and place of birth
  • How you lost your visa (theft, loss, etc.)
  • Copy of your passport, if you have one, along with a copy of the police report

Your embassy or consulate will then advise you of the steps to follow.

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