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Swiss Passport Evolution

Updated: Mar 28

What is a travel document? And what are the requirements? The diagram below gives an example based on the Swiss passport. In the early days, the term "travel document" meant a document valid for a specific journey, issued for a specific purpose. In the second half of the 20th century, the travel document became a multijourney, multi-purpose document, with significant improvements in the fight against fraud and counterfeiting. Finally, the incorporation of digital technologies to complement the physical characteristics started. Since 2020, the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has been preparing the specifications for the issuance of Digital Travel Credentials (DTC), and in October 2023 it is expected that the full range of these DTC specifications will be released, providing the technological basis for the complete replacement of physical passports. It will be interesting to see how below map evolves over the next few years or decades.

Document for a specific travel

The first documents were more in the spirit of a laissez-passer: A letter authorising a specific journey. Security was not a primary concern; the stamp and seal of an authority (person or office) was sufficient. These early documents were handwritten and provided little biographical, let alone biometric, information.

It was not until 1915 that a physical photograph was added to the passport and the document was actually called a passport. It was also in this generation of documents that the shift from cantonal to national issuance took place. This document was still issued for a specific journey. And, as a novelty, it contained the bearer's religion.

Between the two world wars, in 1932, a next generation document was issued that included something like a concept of security features. It was issued as a general travel document, not for a single journey, and was issued to it's holder (head of family), including wife and children travelling on the same document.

The "red passport"

In 1959, the famous and envied "red passport" was issued for the first time. It marked a significant improvement in security. The manual process of issuing passports was replaced by the use of special typewriters. The entry for children remained, but women were issued with their own documents, with no possibility of sharing between spouses.

1985 was to be the last in a cycle of upgrades lasting almost 30 years per iteration. From now on the frequency of iterations would increase. The security concept was again significantly updated. The outdated typewriter issue was replaced by the first digitisation technologies, namely dot matrix printers.

Machine readable

2003 marked another significant change in document production: The document contains a machine-readable zone (MRZ) and is laser-engraved (or ink-jet printed for emergency documents) on a polycarbonate data page. The physical photograph has been replaced by a digitally processed and laser engraved photograph. Children entries will no longer be allowed. A new biometric feature was introduced: the person's height (which may have previously been included in the personal description of identifiers such as birthmarks, hair colour, eye colour, etc.). The document was now flexible after the cardboard / textile cover was replaced. And the size was reduced to the newly standardised, handy format.

Biometric ePassports

In 2006, 5 years after the 9/11 attacks, the existing passport received a major technological upgrade with the ICAO compliant chip with data groups 1 (MRZ) & 2 (photo).

4 years later, in 2010, data group 3 (fingerprints) and the PACE security protocol were added. Apart from that, the concept remained basically the same.

2022 marks the latest generation, with a radically revised and improved security concept, bringing it up to date with the latest technology. The size of the document has also been reduced slightly, as it interprets the ICAO standard differently to previous documents.

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