ICAO: Machine-readable and biometric passports will not be in place until 2018-2020

On 17 July 2005 the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) announced that its 188 contracting states had agreed that:

"all must begin issuing ICAO-standard MRPs not later than 1 April 2010"

The ICAO say that 110 states currently issue MRP (Machine Readable Passports) and another 11 states have MRPs but have not officially notified them (giving a total of 121).

What is interesting about this statement is that 67 countries currently do not issue MRPs which is because of lack of "technical know-how" or "financial resources".

It is also important to note that 1 April 2010 is the date for all 188 states to start issuing MRPs, which will mean this process will not be complete under 2020 (10 years being the norm for passport validity).

MRPs are the current style of passports issued in the EU with the two-line strip at the bottom of the personal details page containing the details on the page (eg: issuing country, name, date of birth, passport number and expiry date). This data is machine-readable. To this is added a passport-photo for visual confirmation.

Of the 110 states currently issuing MRPs the ICAO says that:

"about 40 of them plan to upgrade to e-passports with biometrics by the end of 2006 to meet the United States Visa Waiver Programme requirements" (ICAO, 18 August 2005)

Twenty-five of these forty states planning to introduce e-passports come from the EU.

The ICAO standards, as set out in its Document 9303, states that the "facial image" is the primary identifier. However, the standard of a "facial image" in a passport (or travel document) can be either:

1. As set out in the ICAO document 9303 a "photograph or digital image". A digital image is simply the digitisation of the normal passport photo which is then placed in a chip which itself is inserted into the passport. This process does not require the physical presence of the individual at an "enrolment" centre, relying simply on the person posting an application with a photo. The digital image is not a biometric.

2. By what is called "facial recognition" which does requires the physical presence of the individual and is a biometric. This involves the taking of a facial scan which plots up to 1,840 unique features of a person's face.

In the EU the deadline for introducing a "digital image" on new passports issued is August 2006, while that for starting to issue passports with fingerprints is February 2008.

Thus the claim that all forty will "upgrade" by "the end of 2006" in fact means for the 25 EU states that they will start issuing digital image e-passports in 2006. While the issuing of biometric passports will not be complete until 2018 at the earliest.


In practice there will be two systems, termed the "co-existence of technologies", one based on MRPs plus photos and another which with biometrics.

In the first group are the 67 states which have to introduce MRPs between 2010-2020. These include Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ghana, Liberia, Eritrea, Mozambique, Brazil, Venezuela and Algeria.

Moreover, while 67 states do not issue MRP only 55 of the 121 states with MRPs have machine readers with which to check the data. Or put another way round only 55 out of 188 states that issue MRPs have the means to read them.

The aim is that in 15 years time all passports will be machine readable though how many states will have the means to read them is not stated.

Under the second, biometric passport system, the forty or so states signed up to this are expected to complete the process in 13 years time.

Biometric passports need "readers" installed at every entry point - land, sea and air - but even in the EU there is no uniform standard set for what the "readers" will be used for (EU doc no: 10559/04, 1.7.05). For example, they may be used for "one-to-one" checks at the point of entry (is the person presenting themselves the same as that recorded on the biometric passport) or "one-to-many" (checked out against national "watch-lists", eg: for suspected terrorists).

The value of biometric passports for counter-terrorism purposes is going to be very limited for years. Even by 2013 some 50% of passports in the forty-odd participating states, including those in the EU, will have biometrics but 50% will not, leaving a gaping hole in terms of meaningful intelligence.

People visiting the EU from the other 148 states, which on current plans will only have MRPs, will in theory be subject to the planned Visa Information System (VIS) requiring the taking of fingerprints and the insertion of an EU-visa chip in their national passports. But the timing and success of this is by no means certain, First due to the "collision of chips" problem which is still to be resolved - this occurs when the passport-issuing state has, or plans, to put its own biometric chip into its documents. Second, the countries issuing the passport into which the EU wants to put its visa-chips has to agree.


1. UK: e-Borders plan to tackle "threats" (pdf)
2. List of states with machine readable documents (pdf)
3. Press release, 11 July 2005
4. EU: Special Report: EU biometric visa policy unworkable

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