Just like airline boarding passes and public transit tickets, our passports might soon make the leap to our personal devices—and turn our beloved stamp collections into a relic of the past.
While the concept of digital passports isn't entirely new, the full digitization of passports is, and Finland—which conveniently boasts the world’s third most powerful passport—is at the forefront of this technological revolution: In August, the Nordic nation launched the world's first digital passport pilot program, which is set to run until February 2024. During the trial, Finnish passengers flying with Finnair, the flag carrier, can use their smartphones instead of their physical passports at border control, going both to and from London, Edinburgh, and Manchester, U.K.
In addition to Finnair, the Finnish Border Guard also collaborated with airport operator Finavia and the Finnish police to initiate the program, which debuted at Helsinki Airport. It’s straightforward: Passengers must first download the FIN DTC app—the latter is short for Digital Travel Credential—then register, sign a consent form, and have their photograph taken by the police for facial recognition purposes. They’re then able to store their DTC, essentially a digitized passport, on their phone. Once registered, passengers have a window—between 36 and four hours prior to their flight—to upload their travel information into the app. According to the Finnish Border Control, the DTC is as “equally reliable” as a physical passport.
Finland's new digital passports are a boon for efficiency, both for passengers and airports: they're cloud-based, entirely eliminating the need to carry a physical document. Instead of standing in line to have their passports manually checked by a border agent, travelers can simply scan an app on their smartphone at designated checkpoints. A border agent then compares the passenger’s photo taken at the airport with the DTC photo taken when they registered with the police—et, voilà.
Charting the evolution of passports
The concept of a passport has existed in some form for at least 800 years; the earliest example is thought to date back to the 13th-century Mongol Empire, during the days of Genghis Khan. However, the idea of a standardized global passport is relatively recent, having emerged about a century ago, in 1920, following the end of World War I. The League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, seeking ways to identify an immigrant’s country of origin, control the flow of people, and prevent another global conflict, introduced the standard.
Over time, of course, the document has shifted shape. In 1998, Malaysia became the first country to issue an electronic passport, or e-passport—a traditional passport by all accounts, save for the microchip embedded in the back cover that contains biometric information. Then, in 2003, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted machine-readable travel document (MRTD) specifications for passports to include an embedded microchip that holds personal data and a photo of the passport holder. That was followed, in 2004, by Belgium's issuance of the ICAO-compliant electronic passport; the U.S. followed suit in 2006. Today, more than 160 countries employ electronic passports. But with the introduction of the digital passport, the future of travel may not involve physical passports at all.
The pros—and cons—of digital passports
There are a few key benefits of digital passports—namely convenience, and the streamlining of the travel process by reducing wait times at border control. Whereas traditional passport checks, including e-passports with biometric chips, can take minutes, the verification process of digital passports can be completed in mere seconds. They also eliminate travelers’ risk of having their passports lost or stolen, an inconvenient and costly endeavor that requires an emergency passport to be issued—which, according to the US Department of State website, can take an average of 10- to 13 weeks, with standard processing.
On the flip side, privacy and global governance are among the key concerns with implementing this new technology. However, Stephen J. Wright, aviation expert and professor of aircraft systems at Tampere University in Finland, believes the security risks posed by the new technology are quite small—in part because Finland uses national identification numbers that are electronically linked with a citizen’s identity and mobile phone number.
Wright, who has recently experienced a malfunctioning chip in his U.K. electronic passport, says that one disadvantage of digital passports is “what happens when the technology malfunctions.” He adds that the cost to implement these systems can also be a disadvantage, as “technology sometimes is not a cheap replacement for real humans doing duties such as guarding the border.”
It's near-impossible to rule out the potential vulnerability of these types of digital documents to hacking and counterfeiting, similar to what transpired during the pandemic, as fake COVID-19 vaccine passports circulated. However, according to Wright, any digitized border control system should include a fail-safe process design that will send a passenger in question to a border agent for additional checks.
So, what does this mean for the future of travel?
Finland is the first—but not the only—country embracing this technological shift. Croatia is planning a similar pilot program this fall, with the Netherlands set to follow it. Each country’s pilot program is being co-funded by the European Union, which has set an ambitious target of 2030 to get at least 80 percent of citizens in the EU to use a digital identity to access key public and private services, ranging from electronic health records to bicycle rentals. The results of the pilot programs in the trio of countries will inform the potential for the future deployment of digital passports throughout the E.U.
Europe already has several related initiatives underway. In 2014, the EU began its journey towards digital unification by establishing the eIDAS Regulation, which stipulates the admissibility of electronic signatures, and has plans to implement the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) in 2024; the cloud-based authorization system will require American passport holders as well as citizens from more than 60 visa-exempt countries to obtain travel authorization before entering the Schengen countries, in addition to Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania. The new ETIAS requirement aims to improve the efficiency of border management and keep track of visitors from visa-exempt countries and will be facilitated by the new Entry/Exit System (EES), a tech-enabled program designed to monitor movement across Europe's borders.
Beyond passports, there's also potential to apply this technology to everything from paperless visas to digital driver’s licenses. Similar passport digitization initiatives are taking place in Poland, South Korea, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S., and while it’s unclear what the future holds, ultimately, the transition to digital passports will be a gradual process, requiring collaboration between governments, institutions, technology providers, and the public.
As we move towards a future where our smartphones can serve as our passports, will our beloved passport stamps go the way of digitization or simply become obsolete? The answer isn’t certain—but it’s clear that the evolution of these little blue, red, black, and green booklets is far from over.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler