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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What are biometric passports?

All passports now issued in the UK are ‘biometric’. Biometric details are those which are unique to you – like your fingerprint, the iris of your eye, and your facial features.

The biometric details in British passports

The chip inside the passport contains information about the holder’s face – such as the distances between eyes, nose, mouth and ears. These details are taken from the passport photograph that you supply. They can then be used to identify the passport-holder. The chip also holds the information that is printed on the personal details page of your passport.

How the biometric passport is used

The chip containing the biometric and personal details has an antenna that means it can be read electronically. Biometric checks can be used at border controls, especially at 'ePassport gates' (automated passport control gates). They can also be used by the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) to check the image on passport renewal applications against images held on record.

How the data is protected and your details kept safe

The data on the chip is protected in three ways, with:

  • a ‘digital signature’, which shows that the data is genuine and which country has issued the passport
  • Basic Access Control, a ‘chip protocol’ that prevents the data being read without the passport holder’s knowledge
  • Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), a digital technique that confirms the data on the chip was written by IPS and has not been changed

The chips can only be read at a few centimetres’ distance from a chip reader – so they cannot be accidentally read.

Finding out what’s on the chip in your passport

Each IPS Regional Office has a Biometric Passport Reader. You can use this to view the personal information that is stored on the chip in your passport. The information you would see is the same as that on the personal details page of the passport.

This is a free self-service facility in the public area of each IPS Regional Office.

Using your existing passport

You don’t need to change your existing passport for a biometric one – you can use your current passport until it runs out. The old style non-biometric passports are still valid to use.

If you want to renew your passport you can do so at any time. If there is any time left on your old passport, IPS will add it to the new passport, up to a maximum of nine months.

Next time you renew your passport, you will be issued with a biometric one.

You can find out more about renewing your passport by following the links below.

Travelling to the USA on a non-biometric passport

You can use your non-biometric British passport to travel to the USA.

If your British passport is machine readable, you can travel to the USA without a visa for certain types of trips. This is under the US Visa Waiver Programme (US VWP).

If your passport is not machine readable, you will need to apply for a visa if you want visit the USA.

You can easily check if your passport is machine readable. If it is, the bottom of the personal details page will have:

  • two lines of characters (numbers and letters)
  • chevrons (which look like this ‘>’ or this ‘<’)

Please note that the US VWP has other requirements. You should check these and, if you are eligible, apply for authorisation to travel before you book your journey. For more information, check the websites of the US Department of Homeland security or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Additional links

Need passport advice?

For help, call the IPS Passport Adviceline on 0300 222 0000.

The Adviceline is open:
- 8.00 am to 8.00 pm Monday to Friday
- 9.00 am to 5.30 pm weekends and public holidays

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