Sample passport: United States Next Generation Passport signature and biodata
Wikimedia Commons | Keesing Platform

Why Aren't People Allowed To Smile In Passport Photos?

There are many different photos we use to represent ourselves in different spaces. From carefree Insta photos to serious LinkedIn photos to the snapshots we keep on our desk, everyone has their own preferred pics.

Of course, there are also the photos that we have no say in: the ones found on passports, driver's licenses, and other official documents. Why aren't we allowed to smile in these pics? The answer might surprise you.

There are no second chances with these pics.

Person holding two US Passports with boarding passes inserted
Unsplash | Brianna R.

It doesn't matter how your hair looks or what you're wearing, because the people who take passport photos aren't concerned with how good or bad you look. They just need a photo of your face that meets certain requirements: most notably, not smiling, ever.

The requirements are an exercise in boring bureaucracy.

Stack of four passports with boarding passes
Unsplash | Jon Tyson

Requirements vary slightly from country to country, but are largely similar. The photo generally needs to be recent, in color, cannot be edited or retouched, and have to come from a proper photo printer.

The reason you can't smile is surprisingly high-tech.

Woman's passport photo
Flickr | paulina.litwa96

While taking physical photos and mailing them to the passport office feels decidedly old-school, there's actually some sophisticated technology at play — and this technology is precisely the reason that a neutral expression is required.

It's all about biometric scanning.

A biometric scanner
Unsplash | Stebilex Systems

Airports and government agencies use biometric scanning tech to analyze the faces and the photos they see. Because these devices analyze a dozen or more individual points on the face, the mere act of smiling or scrunching your face up can mess up their ability to recognize a face. In short, this tech only works on neutral expressions.

Smiling isn't the only restriction.

Pair of glasses on a table
Unsplash | Claudio Schwarz

If you're a glasses wearer who's had to apply for a passport recently, you may have noticed that you'll be asked to take your glasses off. This is because the frames and even the reflection on the lenses can obscure a person's face.

Head coverings are permitted.

Woman wearing a head covering
Unsplash | Muhammad Faiz Zulkeflee

Those who wear religious headwear are allowed to do so on their passport photos, but even this comes with a few restrictions. The garb has to show the person's face, from the bottom of their chin to the top of their forehead, and has to be plain with no patterns.

You can get your own passport photo, but probably shouldn't.

Photographer taking a photo
Unsplash | Ailbhe Flynn

While taking a picture of your unsmiling face might sound easy, there are so many restrictions and reasons that a photo might not be usable that the best practice advice is to go to a professional passport photographer.

It's a little easier for kids.

Child's passport with information blurred out
Wikimedia Commons | Melody Chan

Getting a baby or toddler to stay still for a passport photo is a challenge, so most countries allow kids below a certain age (usually three or so) to have an open mouth in their passport photo.

It can be a tricky world to negotiate.

Sample passport: United States Next Generation Passport signature and biodata
Wikimedia Commons | Keesing Platform

Passports allow us to travel the world, but getting through the red tape can be a challenge. Do you have any passport or passport photo horror stories? If so, please share them in the comments!