LibraryblogOptical vs biometric passports

Optical vs biometric passports

Although optical passports were incredibly popular in the 1980s and 1990s, most have now been replaced by biometric passports in order to increase and reinforce the security of personal information.

Header image
April 6, 2023
Blog Post

Find everything you need to know about optical and biometric passports in this comprehensive guide.

Whether you own an optical or biometric passport, you’ll be able to pass through border control without any issues (as long as your passport is still in date). But while both of these documents accomplish the same mission and both forms of identity document are perfectly valid, there are some differences between the two. Here, we’ll cover whether optical or biometric passports are the best option and why.

What is an optical passport?

Optical passports are machine-readable passports. These documents contain the personal information of the passport holder in two lines of numbers, letters, and arrows at the base of the main passport page.

Originally introduced in the 1980s, optical passports quickly became popular because they allowed immigration officers to process the details of arriving passengers quickly. Plus, optical passports were found to be more accurate than manually-read passports. Added to this, data entry was also faster and it was much easier to match this data to information on immigration databases and watchlists.

However, although optical passports were incredibly popular in the 1980s and 1990s, most have now been replaced by biometric passports in order to increase and reinforce the security of personal information.

What is a biometric passport?

First introduced in Malaysia in 1998, biometric passports (which are also known as e-passports or digital passports) include embedded electronic microprocessor chips that hold personal information, as well as the owner’s photograph.

Biometric passports are still traditional paper passports. However, they provide a number of security advantages over optical passports. For example, the chip and the data held within a biometric passport is much more difficult to replicate than information on a printed page. This makes it much tougher for a fraudster to either create a fake passport or assume someone else’s identity.

On top of this, biometric passports are also popular because they make the border experience far simpler for the passport holder. With a biometric passport, a passport holder can use the e-passport gate when they reach border control. A machine scans the passport and matches it with the data on the holder’s face using facial recognition technology. This speeds up the process and reduces the likelihood of lengthy queues.

How optical and biometric passports work

Optical passports contain encoded information in optical character recognition format. This information can then be read by a computer with a camera or suitable piece of software at border control.

Information encoded includes details about the traveler, including their full name, date of birth, and passport number. After scanning the information, checking it against databases, and ensuring the person in the picture is the person in front of them, the border control agent can allow the traveler to enter the country.

By contrast, biometric passports contain an embedded electronic microprocessor chip. This chip contains biometric information that is used to authenticate the identity of the passport holder. As well as being stored in the chip, important information is also printed on the name page of the passport.

One of the key differences between the two documents is that biometric passports do not need to be checked by a border agent. Instead, the traveler can walk to a dedicated biometric passport area at border control and place their passport on a scanner and contactless chip reader.

Following this, a passport data server will then check the validity of the passport and the data it holds. It will then also check that the person standing in front of the camera is the person pictured on the passport by comparing biometric data. If a match is confirmed, a barrier will open and the traveler will be allowed to proceed into the country.

Are optical passports still in use?

Most countries around the world no longer issue optical passports and instead only issue biometric passports. However, in the majority of countries, optical passports remain valid as long as they’re in date. This means that regardless of whether you own an optical or biometric passport, you can pass through border control.

However, one prominent exception to this is the United States of America. Any foreigner traveling to the U.S. who wishes to enter visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) must possess a machine-readable passport that complies with international standards. If issued on or after October 26, 2006, this passport must be biometric in order for the individual to enter the U.S. visa-free under the VWP.

Benefits of a biometric passport

Biometric passports are now issued instead of optical passports because they provide a number of benefits for travelers and border police alike. For example, e-passports help to:

  • Securely identify the traveler
  • Protect against identity theft
  • Protect the privacy of the traveler
  • Make it incredibly difficult for an existing document to be altered
  • Make it incredibly difficult for a fake passport to be created  
  • Ensure international co-operation with passport security
  • Make sure passengers are prevented from encountering delays at borders

In addition to this, there are multiple layers of security in the e-passport that prevent fraud. Common security features contained within biometric passports include:

  • Invisible personalized information
  • Microtext
  • Microchips
  • A shadow image
  • A 2D barcode
  • MRZ lines
  • Laser engraved polycarbonate overlays
  • Laser engraved data pages

Plus, rather than relying on a simple photo of the individual in question that is then checked by the eye of a border official, biometric passports harness the power of biometric data (as the name suggests). This in itself provides greater security because biometrics are unique, measurable characteristics that can be used to verify the claimed identity of an individual. For this reason, biometrics are widely considered to be one of the most secure types of authentication methods in use today.

Examples of the types of biometric data that can be included within a passport are facial images, fingerprint scans, and iris patterns. By combining different forms of biometric identifiers, passport issuers can create an unrivaled level of security and protection against counterfeit and fraudulent identification documents.

Most secure passport types

From the above information, you may not be surprised to learn that biometric passports are the most secure passport type available.

However, it’s important to remember that passports issued by different countries during different periods of time can also be different. In the UK, for example, passports issued after 2010 are different to the initial e-passports issued in 2006.

That said, the International Civil Aviation Organization publishes standards for both machine-readable passports and biometric passports to ensure that passports issued by different countries meet certain criteria and standards.

When measured by mobility score (the number of countries that allow the holder of that passport to enter for general tourism visa-free, visa-on-arrival, eTA, or eVisa issued within 3 days), the strongest passports belong to:

  • United Arab Emirates (174)
  • Germany, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg, Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and South Korea (170)
  • Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Poland, Japan, Ireland, United States, and New Zealand (169)
  • Malta, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, United Kingdom, and Australia (168)
  • Singapore, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Canada (167)

Countries that have biometric passports

Although they’re a relatively modern invention, biometric passports are now used by more than 150 countries worldwide. Malaysia was the first country to issue biometric passports to citizens, back in 1998. Ever since, countries have quickly adopted these digital passports. Within the first decade, an additional 60 countries began to issue them to citizens.

Biometric passports were first issued in the United Kingdom and the United States of America in 2006. Since, both countries have stopped issuing non-biometric passports.

In total, it’s estimated that more than 1 billion people use e-passports to cross borders around the world.

See how Veriff’s biometric authentication solutions can help you - Book a demo

If you run a business that needs to verify the identity of its users and meet stringent AML and KYC regulations, then our biometric authentication solution can help you achieve your aims.

It harnesses the power of biometric data and confirms that a returning user is exactly who they’re claiming to be. It’s far more secure than using passwords and one-time passcodes and is perfect for securing user accounts.

As soon as the user provides our software with a selfie, it’s checked for liveness and realness. Then, the selfie is compared to a previously identified face and identity. If a match is found, a user can access their account.

Any user’s identity can be authenticated in less than a second. Plus, the solution is 99.99% accurate and 99% of users are authenticated on their first try.

Interested in learning more about how our biometric authentication solution can help your business? Book a demo with our experts today