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UK Plans Passport-Free Entry with Facial Recognition Tech

New biometric e-gates would allow travelers to seamlessly enter the country without presenting their physical documents

by Fergus Cole

January 4, 2024

Photo: Courtesy of London City Airport

Travelers and residents entering the UK could soon gain entry into the country without their passport, according to reports that the government plans to create ‘frictionless’ travel with biometric facial verification technology.

As reported by UK newspaper The Times, plans are being drawn up by the Home Office – the UK government department responsible for immigration and border security – to install high-tech e-gates at all UK airports and entry points that would use only facial verification to grant entry to travelers. Trials of the new e-gates could begin as early as this year.

Photo: London Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5A. Photo. Courtesy of BAA Airports Limited.

Currently, more than 270 e-gates are in operation across the UK, although these will be replaced with newer technology under the proposed plans. The current e-gates were initially just for UK and Irish nationals but were since extended to travelers from other countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

However, they have had technical issues in the past, not least during the May bank holiday in 2023, when a system failure caused lines of up to four hours long to build up at airports.

According to government officials, the new technology would create an “intelligent border” with “much more frictionless facial recognition” than is currently deployed. It would allow travelers to enter the UK without handing over their paper documents and without compromising security.

Photo: London Heathrow Airport. Courtesy of BAA Airports Limited.

Phil Douglas, director-general of the UK Border Force, told The Times: “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 record of them on our security systems. So there will be some people who won’t be getting on the plane.”

If the plans go ahead, the UK wouldn’t be the first country to implement biometric entry points at airports, with the technology already in use at certain airports in the United Arab Emirates and Australia. Phil Douglas told The Times that recent trips to those countries left him “really impressed.”

“I had to apply for an electronic travel authorization in advance and used my smartphone to read the chip in my passport,” he said. “That sent the image of me in the chip to the Australian authorities. When I arrived in Australia, I didn’t even have to get my passport out of my bag. It is a really interesting concept.”

Douglas has long been a supporter of using biometric technology not only at UK borders but also across the world. During the Airports Operators Association conference in London in February 2023, he said during a speech: “I’d like to see a world of completely frictionless borders where you don’t really need a passport. The technology already exists to support that. In the future, you won’t need a passport – you’ll just need biometrics.”