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Is Smiling in Passport Photos Really Banned?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Smiling in passport photos has indeed been banned in a number of countries. In the United States, the State Department guidelines state that the subject of the photo must have a "neutral" expression, and the eyes must be fully open. Passport applicants may be asked to pose for a new photo if the first one is deemed too distorted by the act of smiling.

The rules against smiling do have some exceptions and clarifications, however. A closed mouth smile may be acceptable, but a smile that exposes the teeth is not. A grimacing "smile" formed with a closed jaw may be tolerated as long as other facial features, such as the eyes and nose, are not distorted unnaturally. It is primarily the open mouth, tooth-filled smile that has become problematic.

The reason smiling in passport photos has been strongly discouraged or banned has to do with international security measures. Many modernized airports now use advanced biometric scanning devices that contain facial recognition software. Ideally, a targeted passenger's face can be scanned electronically and compared against a database of legally obtained passport photos. Distinctive biometric patterns, such as the distance between a person's eyes or the shape of his mouth, can rarely be sufficiently altered to prevent a match.

The passport photographs used for comparison should ideally be consistent and accurate, with no shadows or reflections to distort the facial measurements. Passport applicants may also be required to sweep any hair away from their faces, tilt their eyeglasses to eliminate any glare, and face completely forward with a neutral expression. Smiling can distort the subject's eyes and change the relationship between biometric points.

Although the temptation to smile for a more flattering photograph may always be there, the photographer will likely pointedly ask the subject not to do it. The passport photo may not be very flattering, but a smile may be a small sacrifice to make in exchange for increased personal safety.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1002473 — On Nov 27, 2019

Just had my passport photos taken at Walgreens's and was surprised when he said "no teeth". My current passport has my photo with me smiling and so did my passport before that. I look more natural smiling, imo.

By anon998320 — On May 15, 2017

I went to Walgreens. The guy at Walgreens was ignorant of the "no smiling" rule. I am not going to Walgreens anymore for anything. Bad experience. If they are gonna charge 14 bucks for two passport photos, then they ought to know what they are doing.

By anon989695 — On Mar 17, 2015

Hilarious! I just had my picture taken for the passport photo - I seriously struggled to not smile, and as a result I look like a legitimate convict! My family was rolling on the floor laughing at my picture - I'm so expressive in my daily life that my stupid dead face looks nothing like me!

Thank goodness the only people seeing it will be people I'll never see again!

By anon971292 — On Sep 24, 2014

It's a passport that you show to some minimum wage worker that you're never going to interact with again anyway. These photos aren't going on your living room walls. There are probably bigger problems to concern yourselves with than whether or not you can smile for your passport. Get over yourselves.

By anon939078 — On Mar 11, 2014

I had passport photos taken today and was not allowed to smile with my teeth showing. Since this is my usual expression it took several takes to obtain one I could use.

The rule is a neutral expression or smile with no teeth. Doesn't look like me at all and I don't like the photo.

By anon934848 — On Feb 22, 2014

Does it mean that if terrorists smile at the airport, they won't be recognized by face scanners?

By anon312757 — On Jan 08, 2013

@anon41609: I know what you mean. It was one of the hardest things to do! I'm still appalled at the decision to ban smiles. Of all things, ban an expression? Who does that?

By anon289674 — On Sep 05, 2012

The thing I find strange is that they say the broad smile distorts the image and confuses the scanners. Now as long as you can reproduce the smile for the scanner, what's the problem? My 'neutral/pleasant' expression is utterly characterless and looks like I've just been given a quaalude, while my 'normal' expression is often a huge - and very distinct, identifiable - Julia Roberts type smile.

By anon268788 — On May 15, 2012

I've learned that for some people their face "in repose" is not a happy face. So I try to "paste" a smile on my face when I am in public....and I think its the proper thing to do! Pretty soon it's a habit.....and a lot of people do speak to me!

By anon268745 — On May 15, 2012

Canadian passport photos also require no smiles, no glasses, and for hair to be back away from the face. I'd had to do an interesting combination of clips to keep my daughter's unruly bangs back from her eyes!

When we cross the border into the US, we're often requested to remove our glasses so the border guard can check that we're the same people on our passports.

By amypollick — On May 15, 2012

@anon268651: The article says, "tilt your eyeglasses," not sunglasses. I'm sure it's referring to prescription eyewear.

By libertyanne — On May 15, 2012

Boy do I ever agree with anon 60515. We have lost our autonomy and our Fourth Amendment rights are history. It's a shame so many gullible people actually think safety can be gained by taking away our dignity and individuality.

Such a shame--our freedom and privacy are disappearing. The terrorists have won, for sure.

By anon268651 — On May 15, 2012

"Tilt your sunglasses"? You can't smile but you can wear sunglasses for a passport photo? Mistake, surely?

By anon151987 — On Feb 12, 2011

I am a housewife and hate listening to the news. But I will stand up and listen when some politicians say, do not smile. I am getting older and I am not very attractive, so when I cannot smile in a picture I look ugly.

If there is anyone who should not smile, it is the politicians who let the terrorists into the country. Because I sure did not. I just took a picture and it was really bad.

I this changing and sometimes ugly world we need to smile and let each other know that we are hanging in there and still trying our best to make this world better. Anyway in my humble opinion and please, let us smile again.

By anon84742 — On May 17, 2010

Smiling is permitted for US passport photos.

By anon72505 — On Mar 23, 2010

No, it's not banned. I smiled in mine, and showed teeth. And I just got it back in the mail. turns out, they don't care.

By anon60515 — On Jan 14, 2010

There's no reason to smile at the DMV. Every time I go there I feel like a criminal. They wouldn't even give me my ID. I had to have it mailed.

Our whole quality of life is headed for junk bond status. We are not safe and we are not free.

We are being punished and the terrorists have won.

Like the proverbial frog in the pot. We slowly cook as our civil liberties disappear.

By anon53638 — On Nov 23, 2009

Yes. I am a Russian living in Moscow, and when I was twelve, my father took me to get my picture for my passport. The lady would not let me smile.

Now I know Russians are supposed to be tough and emotionless, but I was a very happy little boy. I see how large smiles can distort your face, but try smiling like you normally do. If they won't let you do that, well, then just barely smile.

By pollick — On Sep 22, 2009

I believe the intent of the regulation is to discourage broad smiles which significantly distort the passport applicant's face. A natural display of teeth or a slight upward curve of the mouth would most likely not be considered a forced smile. I would suggest bringing other photographs which would prove your point about having a natural smile.

By anon41609 — On Aug 16, 2009

I cannot help but smile, it is permanently there. I would distort my face to not smile.

What should I do?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
Learn more
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