Travelers at some of the best airports in the world no longer need to show passports, thanks to new technology that is making airport immigration smoother than ever.
In September, Singapore announced that its Changi airport will be the first international hub to go completely passport-free in early 2024 when it implements an automated immigration checkpoint that uses passengers’ biometric data. Instead of presenting a passport to an immigration officer at a kiosk, passengers will simply step up to the automated checkpoint for a facial scan that verifies their identity without needing an exit stamp. All travelers will be able to use the technology, including visitors.
“Biometrics will be used to create a single token of authentication that will be employed at various automated touchpoints, from bag-drop to immigration and boarding,” Josephine Teo, Singapore's second minister for home affairs, said in a speech to parliament. “This will reduce the need for passengers to repeatedly present their travel documents at these touchpoints, allowing for more seamless and convenient processing.”
Biometric passport clearance is a trend that will likely begin to catch on at more airports, as leveraging the technology becomes more popular. Dubai International Airport is also replacing traditional passport checks with biometric clearance—meaning that travelers will be able to walk through the terminal and onto their plane or through immigration using only their face as their ID. No more scrambling for travel documents at every point of the travel process. The program was first only available to residents and citizens, but is being expanded to certain international travelers in 2023.
As the number of air travelers is projected to keep growing worldwide, major hubs are looking for ways to handle the influx efficiently. Singapore is adding a new terminal at Changi airport to accommodate the uptick in passengers, but an “added challenge is our aging population and shrinking workforce,” Teo said, meaning the airport “will have to cope without a significant increase in manpower.” Automation is the key to doing so.
From travelers’ perspectives, an overwhelming majority are in favor of using biometrics to ease airport processes. According to a November 2022 survey from aviation trade group IATA, “75% of passengers want to use biometric data instead of passports and boarding passes.”
In the US, biometric technology is being used to verify travelers’ identities at customs and immigration checkpoints at airports across the country, but that facial scan is used by the immigration officer to ensure a passenger’s face matches the photo on their physical passport, rather than replacing passports altogether.
For now, travelers to both Singapore and Dubai will still need to carry their actual passport with them. Teo says that “a person may undergo immigration clearance using an automated clearance system, if available, but that he may also be required to appear before an immigration officer for immigration clearance after using the automated clearance system, if so directed.”
But in the near future, physical passports will be eliminated completely. “Today biometrics are attached to the physical document,” says Jeremy Springall, senior vice president at biometrics firm SITA AT BORDERS. “In the future, people will be able to travel to different countries with digital versions of their passports stored on their mobile devices.”
By 2030, many airports will have “walk-through, contactless immigration,” according to a recent paper by consulting firm Oliver Wyman. The report predicts that many airports will model their facial recognition operations off of Singapore Changi’s design. But first, airports will need to standardize customs and immigration processes and share passengers’ facial recognition and passport data. “Through coordinated efforts by governments and regulatory bodies, there is a prospect of having an internationally recognized digital identity for all passengers by 2050,” the report says. The International Civil Aviation Organization—which is run by the UN—is leading the effort to develop a universal digital identity to be used alongside airport facial scans around the world.
A uniform digital identity would mean every airport could use biometrics to track travelers across their borders, and physical passports would become obsolete. “The emergence of digital identities means we will be able to travel from anywhere to everywhere—by air, land, or sea—without needing to show physical travel documents, such as a passport, visa, health forms, boarding pass, or driver's license,” Springall says.