Passports Decoded: How Does Your Essential Travel Document Prevent Fraud?

For such a tiny document, you’d be amazed how many security features modern passports contain. Here’s why more countries are choosing to invest in passport security.

Passports are usually small enough to tuck into a back pocket, but don’t let their unassuming nature fool you. These compact travel documents are packed with surprisingly advanced technology. From microchips and holograms to biometric data, today’s passports are virtually impossible to forge, making them an essential tool for both identity protection and global mobility.

“The earliest passports were handwritten, and of course, these were the easiest to copy,” says Armand Arton, founder and president of Arton Capital. “Passport technology has advanced over the years, from handwritten to machine-readable barcodes to biometric-embedded chips – and global mobility has vastly improved as a result.”

“Today’s passports are more powerful than ever, and that’s largely because they are extremely difficult to forge”, adds Arton. “A high degree of security builds trust and cooperation among the global community, and that translates to more freedom for people to move easily and openly – provided you hold the right passport.”

So what are some of the most powerful security features?

In recent years, the emergence of the biometric passport, also known as ePassports, has been a game-changer. These booklets feature what’s known as a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, which contains biometric information, including facial, fingerprint and iris scans that are completely unique to the passport holder.

Malaysia was the first country to introduce this technology back in 1998, and today, there are an estimated 1 billion ePassports in circulation, issued by over 150 countries. The RFID chip also contains a digital signature, a mathematical algorithm that validates the authenticity and integrity of a document – one more feature that helps border agents spot fakes.

Over the past two decades, passport security has continued to develop, with advancements made in virtually every stage of production. Take printing, for example: “Very often, passports are printed using the same machines that print banknotes because they’re known for top-level security features,” explains Arton.

Both modern currency and passports are able to print what’s known as a “see-through” feature, a transparent window with two halves of an image on opposite sides. When held up to the light, you can see the entire image. This clever design can only be created using high-security equipment that is extremely hard to find, making it near impossible for forgers to access.

Something as deceptively simple as ink also plays a role.

Many modern passports now feature optically variable ink that changes color under light. The ink can also be used to dye the thread used to sew the spine. Or there are thermochromic inks, which change color with temperature, as well as inks containing chemical sensitizers, which produce a telltale tampering color change if solvents are applied to them by possible forgery artists.

Some passports even use “nano-fonts” – lettering that is so small it can only be seen under a microscope. Some nano-fonts are only a micron – or one millionth of a metre – tall, making them another handy security feature that’s next to impossible to reproduce.

“This far exceeds the resolution available via any other copying, printing or scanning device in the printing industry, and cannot be replicated by forgers,” explains Robert Smith in the Keesing Journal of Documents & Identity.

When combined, security measures like these create a document that is so complicated and expensive to reproduce effectively that most forgers do not even try.

“Completely faking passports from scratch is nearly impossible today,” says Arton. And while it’s certainly in a country’s best interest to invest in this level of passport technology, the investment can be prohibitive.

“The smaller a country’s population, the more affordable it is for the government to upgrade its passport,” says Arton. “Carribean countries like Antigua & Barbuda or Saint Lucia have populations of around 100,000 on average, so it’s easier to invest in the latest technology. In turn, their passports are widely accepted as a valid travel document, which opens the door to more visa-free agreements.”

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