An electronic passport appears similar to a regular passport, but is embedded with a computer chip that contains physical information about the traveler. Personal information recorded on the photo page of the passport can be accessed via the electronic chip, along with biometic information. Biometic technology includes face recognition, iris scans, and fingerprints. The United States began issuing electronic passports in 2007, along with some participating countries.
A radio frequency identification chip (RFID) is embedded in the back cover of an electronic passport. These chips are scanned by special readers at border crossings to verify the identity of a traveler. When an electronic passport is issued, a digital photo of the applicant is implanted into the chip, allowing facial recognition to authenticate the traveler’s identity.
Travelers from certain countries can use an electronic passport, also called an e-passport, to enter the United States without a visa if traveling for tourism or business purposes. A 90-day restriction applies to these visits, and a visa can be obtained if preferred. More than three dozen countries participate in the program through a visa waiver program. Some of the participating countries joined U.S. government officials in testing the electronic passport before the program became effective.
U.S. officials say the new passports are protected against identity theft and are more difficult to alter than older paper passports. Travelers can be readily identified to guard their safety and the safety of other travelers. Safeguards are built into the system to prevent unauthorized reading of computer chips because scanning machines are programmed with secure channels and information is encrypted in chip readers.
These assurances have failed to deter opponents of electronic passports. They believe the radio frequency identification chips can be read from a distance, putting American citizens in danger when visiting foreign countries. Criminals or terrorists targeting Americans could remotely read information on the chip via portable chip readers, opponents say.
To address this fear, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security points out that the cover of an electronic passport must be open before the chip can be read. Government officials say an electronic passport must be within 4 inches (10 centimeters) of a reading device to pick up information from the chip. Opponents say the chip can be read from a distance of 60 feet (18 meters). A metal shield over the passport cover could block electronic signals from remote readers.
E-passports contain an international logo on the cover that identifies them. This symbol allows travelers to form in lines where electronic readers are available at border crossings. The new passports might save time for travelers passing through immigration inspections. People who hold passports issued before e-passports regulations became effective may still use them until they expire.