A machine readable passport (MRP) is a type of government document that is used for international travel. Like traditional passports, MRPs contain information regarding the nationality and identification of an individual. Machine readable passports are able to be accessed or "read" by a computer, and are generally considered to be more secure than older passport types.
The first machine readable passport documents were produced during the 1980s. In the mid 2000s, the United States government began requiring MRPs for foreign visitors entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program. Most modern passports now use machine readable features. The United Nations has endorsed the standardized format "ICAO Document 9303" for passports used by all member nations.
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All of the key information of a machine readable passport is typically located at the bottom of the document, and consists of two lines of text. A total of 88 characters are used. MRP details such as the name, passport number, and nationality of the individual are printed using standardized fonts. This information can be interpreted by a computer using optical character recognition, which scans and recognizes each letter.
One of the main advantages of a machine readable passport is the reduction of errors. With a traditional passport, individual information must be entered into a processing system manually. This manual entry is prone to errors, especially for travelers with foreign or complex names. Machine readable passports eliminate these errors and allow a computer to directly access the identification details.
A machine readable passport also allows for faster processing times than older types of documents. The ability to simply scan a passport and instantly access the information decreases the wait time for travelers. MRP data also helps reduce the instances of passport forgery. Customs officials can quickly verify that the machine readable information matches the printed details in other areas of a passport. MRP documents do not completely eliminate the chances of forgery, but make illegal passport alterations more difficult.
Machine readable passports are not without disadvantages. The primary disadvantage of a MRP is cost. When a country transitions from a traditional passport and requires all citizens to upgrade, millions of new passports may need to be printed. The cost of printing the new document format is often passed on to travelers in the form of increased passport fees. Despite the increased cost, machine readable passport documents have been adopted by most UN member countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and many others.