a blue passport with gold text on it

If you didn’t already know, the ever lovable country known as Finland has already launched an e-Passport trial. What is an e-passport? Fair question. Basically, it means one day you’ll be able to leave the paper version with the pages you’re afraid to tear at home. If you’re Finnish and flying to London, the future is the present.

For most of us this isn’t yet a reality, but a huge push from airlines, governments and airports means that collecting stamps, like many other elements of nostalgia, will one day be just that and the airport experience may actually get better. Fewer queues for the win!

Here’s everything you need to know about e-passports, biometrics and the many fair questions being raised about privacy, data storage and everything else in this brave new digital world.

a passport with a eagle on it

ePassports Will Replace Traditional Passports

In many countries, sending money requires the blink of an eye or a selfie with your phone to authorize the transaction. Why? Biometric data from your eyes and unique facial features are more secure than a pin code.

If we can do that, why can’t we travel with the same sort of secure validation?

Biometric personal data is regarded in the tech world as being more secure than traditional paper passport photos and pages, based on how easily physical copies can be altered and manipulated to differ from those originally installed. Secure databases for biometrics mean that in theory, they are more tamper proof and have more data points to scrutinize with real time photo capture.

As the technologies evolve the digital nature of “updates” gives the validating tools more to work with. That’s as creepy as it is cool, indeed.

Passports are next.

Finland has embarked on a trial allowing Finnish citizens on select, direct Finnair flights to register and trial its new digital passport framework. Think of your passport the way you would Google Pay or Apple Pay on your phone. You need to unlock the phone to access. This adds an extra layer of security, even if the phone is lost, unlike a wallet.

Once registered and approved for the trial, Finns were able to obtain their digital passport and were instructed to share their data with border authorities at least four hours before departure and proceed through special gates which compare the digital passport photo with the person, digitally. The idea is to save time and add confidence.

Croatia is on track for its own trial at Zagreb Airport later this year.

Alongside framework and guidance setup by IATA and the airline world, countries are exploring the viability of digital passports, creating a paper free and ideally touch point and immigration officer free validation experience.

Of course, a digital passport is only as good as the places that accept it, so don’t expect to tear your paper passport up any time soon.

a large screen with a sign on it

Just like biometric boarding where you don’t need a boarding pass, but rather just a blink of an eye to board a flight, the big selling point is speed. Biometric boarding has seen things like 615 passenger Airbus A380’s boarded in under 20 minutes. Imagine that for passport queues.

The struggle with biometric boarding has been both with the learning curve and with those who don’t automatically match to their biometrics when going through the scan. Airline agents remain on hand to deal with these scenarios which greatly slow things.

Finland’s “world’s first” launch simply created an opportunity for Finns traveling to the UK on direct flights and back a chance to test a digital version of their passport. All who took advantage of the trial needed to jump through some additional hoops to register for the pilot. Nevertheless, it’s exciting and vital progress.

The Groundwork Is Already In Place

Those in the US who use the Global Entry program to streamline arrival back into the states will know that you can simply look at the passenger screening machines and your irises and facial data points authenticate you without whipping out a passport.

Again, many in the data and biosecurity argue that these digital markers are more tamper proof than paper passports, particularly those without e-chips that add a layer of information to the information found within each page.

e-Passports would also finally allow a use for blockchain that people might legitimately understand. Only trusted partners could access passport data from these e-passports and only they could alter or add information. This would make visas and entry records easier to scrutinize or confirm, with fewer paper forms or lost docs.

With many countries moving to United States style ESTA, ETA or other electronic travel screening systems, that’ll actually really come in handy. There’s strong indication that the EU is closely monitoring the trials in Finland in hopes of developing bloc wide trials in the near future.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. “ Biometric data from your eyes and unique facial features are more secure than a pin code.”? No, they are not more secure than a PIN code. PIN codes can be changed and lengthened and shortened in a way that a person can’t do with their own biometrics absent bloody masochistic effort.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *