Soon, travelers would not need passports, only a facial scan, when traveling to the United Kingdom (UK).
The British government plans to implement facial recognition technology at its borders, following examples set by Dubai and Australia.
The UK Border Force Agency’s Director General Phil Douglas proposed eliminating the need for passports after his experience in Australia.
“I had to apply for an electronic travel authorization in advance and used my smartphone to read the chip in my passport. That sent the image of me in the chip to the Australian authorities,” Douglas told The Times.
He further shared. “When I arrived in Australia, I didn’t even have to get my passport out of my bag. It is a really interesting concept.”
Apart from Australia and Dubai, Frankfurt Airport in Germany and Singapore’s Changi Airport also use biometrics, such as fingerprints and facial recognition scans, for automated authentication and contactless travel.
Transitioning to the newer eGates system
Douglas said the goal was to create an “intelligent border” that used “much more frictionless facial recognition” than the UK currently does with its current electronic passport gates (eGates) system.
The Border Force is set to conduct trials at British airports later in 2024 and allow passport-free travel by upgrading the eGates system.
New state-of-the-art technology will identify passengers arriving in the UK through facial recognition, eliminating the need to present their passports.
If the trials are successful, the government will proceed with a procurement process to introduce the system nationwide.
Douglas has previously expressed his vision of “completely frictionless borders” in February 2023. He suggested the paper passport was becoming largely redundant.
During the Airlines 2023 conference in November, Douglas shared that the Border Force agency is already looking to procure new generation eGates.
He spoke of not needing passport or passport desks, and a person’s biometrics will be all that is required for travel.”
Contactless travel and UK ETA
The UK’s move toward “frictionless travel” coincides with the continuous rollout of the UK’s Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA).
The new digital travel permit is mandatory only for foreigners who do not need a visa for short visits and transits to the UK.
Visa-exempt foreigners are citizens of countries that enjoy visa waiver status, including European Union (EU) citizens.
Each UK ETA application costs £10, a small fee compared to other similar travel permits imposed by other countries.
Visa-free travelers must apply for the digital travel permit at least three days before their flight.
When approved, the ETA will be linked to an individual’s passport. This enables them to use the UK’s current eGates system for faster immigration processing at the border.
The scheme is already operational for Qatar citizens. It will soon extend to nationals of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Jordan in February 2024.
By the end of 2024, all visa-exempt travelers must have an ETA when traveling to the UK.
Move towards digital borders
People who hold British and Irish passports don’t need to apply for a UK ETA. However, their biometrics are already collected as a part of the passport application process.
This may also be true for individuals applying for UK visas and those with immigration statuses, including pre-settled and settled status under the European Union Settlement Scheme (EUSS).
Data collected through passport, visa, ETA applications, and the move to digital records of immigration status or an eVisa give the government more control and oversight over individuals entering the country.
Douglas said, “We will know a lot more information about people upfront. We will know if they’ve been in the UK before. We’ll know what their compliance with immigration laws is.
“And we’ll know if there’s any records of them on our security systems. So there will be some people who won’t be getting on the plane,” he added.
The UK’s current eGates system
With the UK’s current eGates system, travelers must have a biometric passport or one that has a camera-like symbol on the cover.
The passport’s chip stores the holder’s details like name, birthdate, gender, nationality, photo, and the country that issued the passport.
It may also contain travel and visa information and biometrics like facial recognition or iris scans. Soon, it may also store fingerprints.
The eGate scans the passport photo and information page and then takes a new picture of its holder to check if they match.
If everything is okay, the eGate opens automatically. Should there be an issue, an immigration officer handles the case personally.
Children under age 10 must complete passport checks in person. Those aged 10 to 17 can use eGates when accompanied by an adult.
UK e-gates were initially for British and EU nationals but are now available to travelers from Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, the US, Australia, and other countries.
There are currently over 270 e-gates at 15 UK airports and rail stations that will require replacement. Officials expect the new facial recognition technology to be faster and more secure.