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UK smart passport gates explained

Photo of Jacob LewisPhoto of Jacob Lewis
By Jacob Lewis

5 January 20244 min read

Woman standing at electronic gates at passport control in an airport

The UK Border Force has announced plans to install new facial recognition systems on the country’s borders to make entering the UK smoother and faster.

Breezing through airport security without having to pull out your passport could soon be a reality. Here’s our deep dive into this high tech border force upgrade and how it could make holidays easier.

What exactly are smart passport gates?

Smart passport gates are an advanced border control system that uses facial recognition technology to verify your identity. These gates are designed to let travellers enter the UK by simply looking into a camera, eliminating the need to physically show your passport.

How do smart passport gates work?

Upon reaching a smart gate, you'll look into a camera that uses facial recognition technology to match your face with the data already stored in a centralised system. This system is linked to the UK's Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme, meaning your details are verified in a matter of seconds.

Will I need to register to use these gates?

For British and Irish travellers with a passport, all the biometric information required to use the new gates is already on file. Other nationalities will need to be registered on a database that's part of the UK's ETA scheme. This registration process involves providing biometric details and other necessary information.

Are smart passport gates safe and reliable?

These gates use advanced facial recognition that's designed to recognise numerous features of your face, making it highly accurate and secure.

Does this mean I leave my passport at home when I go on holiday?

No, you shouldn't leave your passport at home when you go on holiday, even with the introduction of smart passport gates. While these gates use advanced facial recognition technology to verify your identity without you having to present your passport physically at the gate, your passport is still a crucial travel document.

Firstly, when you're flying internationally, airlines typically require a passport for identification before allowing you to board the plane. This is a standard procedure across most international flights. It’s also a legal requirement in some countries to carry your passport when travelling. It serves as your official identification and proof of nationality in foreign countries.

There also might be instances where the smart gate system fails or can't recognise you for some reason. In such scenarios, border officers will resort to manual checks where your physical passport is necessary. Furthermore, if your travel plans include countries that do not have smart gate technology, your passport will be essential for entry and exit.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, in case of emergencies or unexpected situations where you need to prove your identity or nationality, your passport is your best bet. It's universally recognised and accepted as a form of ID.

When will the first smart passport gates be operational?

The first smart passport gates are expected to be installed as part of a trial set to commence in 2024. The exact date hasn't been specified.

Has this been tried anywhere else?

This isn't a new concept globally. Dubai, for instance, has implemented a similar system at its airport, allowing some travellers to go through immigration in as little as five seconds using smart gates. Australian and Korean airports also employ this technology.

What if the system doesn't recognise me?

While the technology is highly sophisticated, there's always a plan for exceptions. If for any reason the smart gate can't verify your identity, you'll be directed to a manned booth where a border officer will manually check your documents.

Who can use these smart gates?

The UK’s current eGates, which require a passport to operate, are accessible to travellers aged 10 or above who are British, as well as citizens from certain other countries and territories like the EU, the US, Canada, and Australia, among others. The new smart gates will likely follow similar eligibility criteria, but specifics might evolve as the system is implemented.

What about families with children?

Families with kids under a certain age might not be able to use the smart gates. In Dubai, for example, families with children under 15 can't use their smart gates. The UK might adopt a similar policy, so it's best to check the latest guidelines before you travel.

Are these gates going to replace all traditional passport checks?

The aim is to significantly reduce the need for manual passport checks, making travel faster and more efficient. However, traditional checks will still be in place for certain situations and travellers.

What happens if the system fails?

Technology isn't foolproof, and there have been instances, like the May 2023 eGates system collapse in the UK, that caused delays. While such incidents are rare and often quickly resolved, manual checks will always be available as a backup to ensure travellers can still enter the country.

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