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What is a Machine-Readable Passport? (Updated 2018)

Chances are you probably have this passport, but you didn’t know it. In this article, we are explaining what these passports are and how they function.


Find your passport and open the first page. Under your picture and all your personal information, you will find two lines of letters, random numbers, and a lot of the same symbol ‘<’. You can clearly decipher your name, but what do the rest of those characters mean?


These characters are some of your personal data which is encoded in optical character recognition format. In plain ol’ English, this means that those two lines of 44 characters can be read by machines since they are machine-readable text. Okay, but how does this all concern you? Well, thanks to machine-readable passports, or simply MRP, you don’t have to wait too long for your passport to be processed at border controls.


The machine-readable zone (MRZ) at the bottom of your identity page in passport contains only letters from A to Z, numbers from 0 to 9 and the filler character ‘<’. Here’s a little guide on figuring out what they all mean:

1. Letter ‘P’ stands for passport;

2. This space is provided for a character indicating a passport’s type. If the country issuing the passport doesn’t have any passports’ types, symbol ‘<’ is used instead;

3. Next three characters represent the country that issued the passport in ISO 3166-1 alpha-3 codes;

4. Next 39 characters are reserved for surname and first name. First one is the surname which is divided from the given name with two filler characters ‘<’. If there are two surnames or two given names, they are between themselves divided with a single filler character ‘<’. If any part of the name is too long, it can be shortened to fit the first line of the MRZ;

5. These 9 characters are the passport’s number;

6. This character is a check digit. It is calculated with a help of an algorithm and it is based on the passport’s number;

7. Next three characters represent the nationality of the passport holder;

8. These characters are the date of birth in the YYMMDD format;

9. Check digit based on the date of birth;

10. Sex of the passport holder. ‘M’ for male, ‘F’ for female, and ‘<’ for unspecified;

11. The expiration date of the passport in the YYMMDD format;

12. Check digit based on the passport’s expiration date;

13. Personal number;

14. Check digit based on the personal number;

15. This is a check digit for positions 1 to 10, 14 to 20, and 22 to 43 on the second line.


Transliterations are also necessary since only letters from A to Z are allowed in the machine-readable zone. Here are some of the letters and their transliterations:


å → AA lj → IJ ß → SS
ä, æ→ AE ñ → NXX þ → TH
ð → DH ø, œ, ö→ OE ü → UE (German) or UXX (Spanish)


Also, Cyrillic and Arabic names need to be transliterated into their Latin versions.


Besides passports, there are also other machine-readable travel documents, or for short MRTD. These are identity cards, passport cards and machine-readable visas. Their formats vary, as do the number of the machine-readable characters on them. They also have slight variations in their characters. For example, machine-readable visas have first letter ‘V’ which stands for a visa, instead of ‘P’ in passports.


Have fun deciphering your MRZ!


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