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What on earth is an MRZ? And why does it matter?

We look at the mysterious MRZ at the bottom of most identity documents, and explain what it contains and how it helps verify your legitimacy.

AuthorPatrick Johnson, October 14th, 2020

The Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ) of an identity document is something that most people take little to no notice of when they hand their passport or other official ID document over for verification.

Most of us cringe at the little square profile photo, while imagining that the government official or administrator is judging the bad lighting or strange facial expression. It doesn’t occur to us that they are probably paying little attention to that and instead are relying on a few lines of code positioned underneath it.

During the 1980s, the identity page of the world’s main travel document – the passport – was overhauled with the addition of two lines of seemingly randomised letters, numbers and symbols.

These lines of code are the ‘Machine-Readable Zone’ – or MRZ – and are crucial to the robustness of the ID document. Look closely and you’ll see that they contain the same information about the passport owner as is shown on the rest of the identity page. The difference is that the MRZ is designed to be read by a machine.

Passports and official ID documents like national ID cards and Driver’s Licenses have to be formatted in a way that allows for standard verification by different entities. Passports in particular have to be recognized correctly by all modern airports in the world, and this means that the content and structure of the identity page has to be consistent. To ensure they are standardized, they comprise of two parts – the Visual Inspection Zone (VIZ), and the Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ).

The VIZ – the bit that displays our often-embarrassing photo – is designed to be processed by a human, while the MRZ is designed to be read by a machine. A document that includes an MRZ is called a Machine-Readable Travel Document or ‘MRTD’.

These days, technology has developed so much that the MRZ in a document can even be read by smartphone apps. Many companies like Veriff also use MRZ codes to verify ID documents and thus prevent fraudulent activity and identity theft.  

MRZ Data

An MRZ code is two lines of text which includes the following data that is also displayed in the VIZ:

  • Document code
  • State code, or code of the government agency (organization) that issued the passport 
  • Full Name
  • Document number
  • Citizenship
  • Birthdate
  • Gender
  • Expiration date
  • Other data may also be included, at the discretion of the document’s issuing authority

The standards for MRZ codes are strictly regulated and they have to comply with Doc 9303. Machine Readable Travel Documents published by the International Civil Aviation Organization

The MRZ code in a passport not only provides personal details in a standardized format that can be read automatically via a machine, but it also gives quicker access to Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips which are located within biometric passports. This means that travel documents and travellers can be processed more efficiently and more accurately at airports and borders.

Using an MRZ to travel

As mentioned, the MRZ on the identity page of a passport is most commonly used to allow for the computerized verification of someone’s personal data as they try to enter or exit a country.

The MRZ code is scanned and then automatically matched with a code that is generated by an algorithm created by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). If any inconsistency is detected, then the document is flagged as being potentially fraudulent.

Machine-Readable Travel Documents (MRTDs) were introduced with the intention of creating a well-organized and efficient ID verification process for airports. Passports get checked at many different points when someone is travelling, such as at the flight registration desk, various control points round the airport, through security and prior to being able to board a plane. This means that the MRZ has to work seamlessly and faultlessly.

Ever since MRZ codes were introduced, they have had a big impact on the speed at which you can travel through an airport or border control point and have been universally recognized as a helpful and efficient addition to a passport.

Using your MRZ as identity verification

With cases of fraud on the rise and many personal and important processes having moved online, identity documents have to be carefully and vigilantly checked.

Usually, ID documents include many layers of security features and designs in order to prevent forgery and identity theft. MRZ codes are a major part of this security package.

Companies like Veriff are working hard to help financial institutions and other organizations to protect their data and provide vital online services to customers. In order to do this they are focusing their efforts on new methods like Assisted Image Capture and ensuring that robust features like MRZ codes are incorporated in their processes.

Identity document validation technologies (IDVT) are a crucial aspect of this and are designed to quickly test an identity document and establish whether it is authentic. They can read specific security features on ID documents – like MRZ codes on passports – and provide valuable levels of virtual verification.

MRZ codes have been a resounding success in the battle against fraud for many years and it certainly looks like they are here to stay, having successfully proved useful as the world becomes increasingly digital.

Patrick Johnson

Copywriter

Patrick takes care of the voice of Veriff - coordinating the copy throughout our brand and product and making sure we're constantly delivering engaging and excellent content.

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