RFID passport protectors — A complete guide

RFID passport protectors are exploding in popularity, as tech-savvy travellers are looking to safeguard their personal data embedded in modern biometric passports.

This rise is probably fuelled by news reports of virtually everything getting hacked:

North Korea are even allegedly hacking major pharmaceutical companies to obtain details on coronavirus vaccinations!

But what are so called RFID protectors actually doing, and do you even need a RFID protecting passport cover?

This complete guide will give you an overview to digital passports, how they work, what data they hold, and most importantly, do you need to buy an RFID passport protector? By the end you’ll know more about biometric passports and RFID than you ever realised you needed to know!

While I began to write this article to prove that you didn’t need an RFID passport protector, hours of research has convinced me that there is some use. Let me explain…


What is RFID, and why is it in my passport?

RFID stands for radio frequency identification. This is a process that involves sharing small amounts of data via radio waves.

RFID chips are small microchips that hold data, they are also accompanied by a small antenna. The most common types are known as passive RFID chips. This is the type of RFID chip that is in your passport.

These are tiny, and don’t need their own power source. As a result they are often fitted into passports, employee badges, credit cards — even printed on sticky labels for in store products.

When an RFID scanner is operated in the vicinity of one of these passive RFID chip, the radio waves it broadcasts effectively power up the RFID chip, enabling it to broadcast its information, and the reader to accesses the data on it.


biometric RFID enabled UK passports

Is my passport RFID enabled?

Yes. RFID passports are marked by the small microchip icon on the front cover.

As of 2020, there are 1 billion RFID enabled passports globally, so if you’re googling this question it is almost guaranteed that your passport is RFID enabled.

Unfortunately, passports with RFID readers embedded in them are known under many names, which can confuse things.

E-passports, digital passports and biometric passports are all essentially the same thing — passports with a microchip in containing personal data.

Malaysia were the first in the world to adopt the technology, back in 1998. However, biometric passport technology really skyrocketed in use in the mid-2000’s with America, the United Kingdom, most European countries adopting the measures. By now, most countries are on their 3rd + edition of biometric passports.

By 2019, 150 countries were using biometric passports.


What data is stored on a biometric passport?

The RFID chip in passports is stored within the photo page of your passport, and this is largely the data it holds. It is simply a digitised version of the details held on that page.

  • Passport photo
  • Names
  • Date of Birth
  • Nationality
  • Passport number
  • Expiry dates

In addition, there is a cryptographic signature. This is essentially a digital tamper seal, and displays to the border officials that the passport hasn’t been tampered with.


How do RFID passport protectors work

RFID blocking passport protectors work by obscuring the radio waves used by RFID readers from reaching the antenna embedded in your passport. They are a mini faraday cage, and for this reason, in some parts of the world are known as faraday protectors.

When RFID readers come close, the radio signal cannot pass through the passport protector, so it cannot power up the chip in your passport, and therefore cannot read your data.


Can I make my own RFID passport protector?

RFID Passport protection with aluminium foil

Yes.

While the technology sounds high tech, the brute force blocking method used by RFID protectors is basic.

In a similar way to old buildings blocking phone signal, you can simply place a metallic wall — known as a faraday cage — around your passport to block radio signals and make it harder to read.

Aluminium foil is great for this.

It is recommended to use thick foil, so you can simply double it over. Wrapping the foil around your passport or placing it inside the passport cover will have the same effect as RFID passport protectors. In fact, you might find this method might be more effective than some poorly performing RFID protectors.

Here is a great video showing the power of aluminium foil!


Do you need an RFID passport protector?

The big question, do you actually need one?

The short answer is no. Not for your passport anyway.

Virtually all passports have RFID protection strips built into their covers. Your biometric data and RFID chip is stored within the photo page.

As a result, you can’t activate the chip in your passport without opening the cover anyway — your passport already has its own RFID protector built in.

There is some debate about the effectiveness of this, so here is the expanded argument and key points against needing an RFID protector for your passport — by security professionals.

While security officials allege that you cannot read a passports RFID chip with the cover closed, hackers admit it can be done. But, it’s just not practical.

“Most off-the-shelf technology allows a person to read an RFID chip as long as they’re within a couple of feet to a couple of inches. This length depends on the antenna and power supply” — Tinker admitted that he’s seen skilled individuals prove that they can read an RFID chip from up to several feet away. But the hardware needed to do so isn’t very portable.

Tinker — Dallas Hacker Association Member

Each time your passport is accessed, it generates a unique key that can only be read by computers at passport control with the correct decryption. Without this key, you can’t access the data anyway.

Everything is encrypted and can be read only by authorised and authenticated readers. We also use random user identification (RUID) in order to prevent tracking. When a chip is queried by the reader, the first thing that is provided is the chip’s serial number.

Michael Holly — Chairman, ICAO Machine Readable Travel Document Working Group

While the passport data itself could be useful, in its digital form its pretty unusable.

  1. You need some expensive and powerful equipment to skim passports
  2. It is very high-risk to be using this equipment in airports
  3. If successful, you need significant resources to decode the encrypted data
  4. Once you have this data, as we’ve seen it is no more extensive than the information on the photo page anyway, so its use would be limited to complex frauds and would be unable to be used for illegitimate travel

For all of this effort, it would be much simpler, quicker, and low risk, to simply pickpocket a passport. Which is probably why in the UK alone, 400,000 passports are reported lost or stolen each year. In contrast, there have been 0 reported RFID passport crimes ever.


Summary — Should you buy an RFID passport protector

All the current evidence points to no — not for RFID protecting passport covers anyway. Skimming biometric passports, is difficult, risky, and with little reward. As a result, there is no demand for it, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem in 2021.

That’s not to say it won’t become a problem in the future, or that you’ve wasted your money if you have one, but it shouldn’t be the first thing on your wish list! I don’t travel with a specific RFID protecting passport holder.

Having said that — there is a big caveat to this!

RFID protection credit cards

RFID protection doesn’t just stop at your passport, and it turns out that while passports are safe, some RFID devices are a lot less safe.

Here’s an in-depth video showing how both NFC and RFID cards can be accessed just with a simple smartphone app.

With more sophisticated equipment, and a greater reward than just scanning your passport, this crime is rising.

US passport cards are shipped with protective sleeves because of the high threat of being skimmed

Common across the US and also the EU, passport cards are another form of government ID card that contain RFID chips and personal information.

Unlike Passports — with their RFID blocking cover — passport cards don’t have this luxury and have significantly weaker defences.

Passport cards are another story altogether. They’re designed to make the re-entry of a U.S. citizen to the United States a speedy process. They can be read from upwards of 25 feet away by an RF receiver. Because the security risk is greater, the Department of State doesn’t place as much data on these cards as they do in a passport book; the only thing on the card is a unique identifying number. Additionally, when a new passport card is sent to its recipient, it ships with its own Faraday sleeve. Despite how little information the cards contain, it’s a good practice to only take the card out of its sleeve when presenting it to border officials. If you’ve lost your sleeve, you’ll want to buy a new one, right away.

AFAR Magazine — The truth about your passport

As a result, while I wouldn’t recommend buying an RFID passport protector — as they have quite a limited use — I would definitely recommend buying an RFID bag or pouch.

With a growing trend towards using RFID chips in day to day devices, having an additional layer of protection for your wallet with your cards, hotel room keys and even passport all being protected in one is no bad thing.