Which passport can take you around the world with ease? And which could be seen as a true fashion accessory? We look at the documents we hold so dear when it comes to international travel.
Patrick Johnson, August 6th, 2020
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When we ask the question ‘what is the world’s strongest passport’ we are not referring to which one would win an iron man contest. Rather, we are asking about how trustworthy it is, how many diplomatic ties it represents, what its design is like and how secure it is.
At their most basic level, passports are travel documents that are usually issued by a country's government to its citizens. They verify the identity and nationality of the holder and allow them to cross borders and partake in international travel.
The size of passport booklets was defined in the 1920s and normally comes in the familiar B7 format (4.921 ×3.465 in) and complies with the ISO/IEC 7810 ID-3 standard. However, the design and security features of passports vary from country to country and it is these factors that can have a considerable effect on how secure it is.
It is interesting to note that no matter how powerful a passport is, they can’t stand up to a global pandemic. Before Covid-19 took hold, travellers around the world were enjoying greater freedom of movement than at any time in history and the average passport-holder was enjoying visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to approximately 107 global destinations. Coronavirus-related border closures have changed that significantly though. Once this pandemic has run its course, it is hoped that these essential identity verification documents will be able to help all of us get back to exploring the world.
So, what are the different features of a passport and how can these affect how ‘strong’ they are?
When people discuss passports, they often talk about how ‘powerful’ they are. This relates to how many destinations a particular passport will allow you entry into on a visa-free basis. Helpfully, there is actually some official data on this, from the Henley Passport Index which is the ‘original ranking of all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa’.
According to the 2020 research, the accolade of the ‘world’s most powerful passport’ belongs to Japan, with its holders able to visit 191 destinations with visa-free or visa-upon-arrival access. Closely behind Japan is Singapore which has visa-free access to 190 destinations.
What might be surprising to some is that the United States and the UK are seventh on the list, ranking them in conjunction with Norway, Switzerland, and Belgium, each of which have visa-free access to 185 destinations. Unsurprisingly, Brexit and the 2016 election caused the UK and the US to slide down the rankings in recent years.
Note that these rankings do not take temporary coronavirus-related travel bans into account. Henley & Partners stated in a release, that this is where it gets interesting: "It is eye-opening to consider what travel freedom currently looks like for the holders of once-prestigious passports."
An electronic passport – also known as a biometric passport, e-passport, ePassport, or digital passport – is a traditional passport with the extra feature of an embedded electronic microprocessor chip.
This chip holds precise biometric information that can authenticate the identity of the passport holder such as fingerprints, a digital version of the ID photo and all the other ID data. Public key infrastructure (PKI) is usually how the data is authenticated and stored which makes it even harder to forge the document.
A number of countries from around the world have updated their passports in recent years so that they contain these electronic chips. They have used the opportunity to add further security features in order to combat identity fraud while simultaneously bolster the international confidence in their travel document.
UK passports are set for a number of new security features soon, with the documents set to be blue after Brexit and a new manufacturer having been appointed. Alongside the color change and their secure electronic chip, they are also set to be made from polycarbonate instead of paper to make them more durable and resistant to fraudulent tampering.
Near-field communication (NFC) technology is also being used to help authorities validate people’s identities and strengthen their passports. This technology allows the data to be read directly from an ePassport chip and can even help to verify whether a fraudster has altered the document.
Last year, Veriff launched their NFC verification tool to help with identity verification and it is thought that the global demand for ePassports with this feature will grow by 21 percent CAGR to $23.93 billion in 2023.
Passports are typically very beautiful documents. Countries that have fashioned passports that are both attractive and distinctive have been able to create unique travel documents that are not only works of art but are also symbols of trust.
Something that many people don’t realize is that these designs are not just a showcase for the issuing country, but also a security feature as they help to conceal some information. Colors, patterns and illustrations balance and create extremely secure elements that are very difficult to forge and replicate.
A few examples of passports with particularly impressive design features are:
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