Swiss unveil new passport

The new Swiss passport will contain a barcode Keystone Archive

The Swiss passport - the much-vaunted little red book with a white cross - is set to change next January, putting an end to more than four decades of tradition.

This content was published on March 25, 2002

The new passport was unveiled at a press conference in Bern on Monday.

At first sight it looks as though little has changed - the passport is the same colour and still has a distinctive white cross, all be it tiny and moved from the middle to the top right hand corner.

But the new one is smaller, making it the same size as its European Union counterparts, and the passport photo will be replaced with one that is scanned into an electronic database.

First-time barcode

The most defining new feature, however, is that the Swiss passport will now carry a bar code making it a machine-readable travel document (MRTD).

"Bar codes are one way of identifying people rapidly," Denis Chaugon of the International Civil Aviation Authority told swissinfo.

Switzerland is the only country out of the 29 in the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), which does not have bar codes in its passports.

However, last December, the US House of Representatives passed a bill calling for VWP countries to include new high-tech biometric bar codes in their passports.

Biometric barcodes

Biometric barcodes contain encrypted information about the passport holders' physical attributes, including a map of their iris, something that is reportedly impossible to forge. The aim is to make bogus passports a thing of the past.

The legislation was passed following September's devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, which killed around 3,000 people.

Its aim is to identify potential terrorists and criminals, from information already logged into international electronic data banks.

It will go to the vote in the US Senate later in the year. If the senators vote in favour of biometric codes, it will become a requirement of all VWP citizens wanting to visit America.

That raises the question of whether the new Swiss passport would remain valid for travel to the US, if the proposed regulations take effect.

Transition period

The old Swiss passport, which has been used since 1959, will no longer be issued after January 1 of next year. There is a transition period of four years so people holding an old passport do not need to change it immediately.

The new passport also brings with it new procedures.

The issuing of passports, which has always been done at a cantonal level, is becoming centralised. This means that it could take longer to obtain a Swiss passport. The Swiss foreign ministry says it could take up to 30 days, but recommends applying two months before the passport is needed.

The costs involved will also change and there will be no disparity from canton to canton with a flat rate of SFr160 ($96). Genevans, who used to pay the highest rate, will now pay the same as someone in Basel or Zurich.

All Swiss citizens will now be eligible for a Swiss passport, including children and adolescents. Children will no longer be included in their parents' passports.

These child passes will be valid for three to five years. This does away with the problems of guardianship in the case of unmarried parents or in the event of divorce, and makes child abduction more difficult.

by MaryAnn Mathew and Sally Mules

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