No hats, no glasses, and no face expressions such as smiling or frowning allowed. Bright, plain background, straight posture, no glares or shadows visible. Those are some of the most common official ID picture requirements globally. The standards regarding ID photos around the world are pretty similar, despite every country having their own set of rules. Some of them are stricter than the others, and some allow exceptions in certain cases. 

But it hasn’t been like this forever. From the requirements (or, in some cases, the lack of them), to the overall look and form of the identity documents and the photos of their holders – all of that has diametrically changed in the last few decades. 

The first time the photo identification was used was during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. William Notman, a professional photographer, introduced a photo identification system at the event. It required all of the visitors and employees at the exhibition to obtain a so -called “photographic ticket” – an identification card with a picture of the holder attached to it. However, this type of identification didn’t become popular until the early 1900’s, when first passports including photographs were introduced.

Before the era of passports that included photographs, the documents used to contain a brief description of the looks of the passport holder. Features such as eye or hair color, height and a shape of one’s nose or chin, would be listed alongside any distinctive features (scars, birthmarks, missing limbs) and personal details. Back in time, those were the only way to identify those crossing the borders. With today’s knowledge, it is not hard to imagine that it wasn’t the most reliable way to do so, unless the presence of features that would strongly distinguish one from another. 

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Collective passport issued for a group travelling from Poland to Hungary in 1923. Photo credit: Neil Kaplan,

The beginning of photo-based identity documents

The first passport including a photograph was introduced in 1915. That year, the US Secretary of State ordered the introduction of passport photos after a German spy, Carl Lody, managed to obtain a US passport and travel to the UK under the alias of Charles A. Inglis. It wasn’t difficult for him, due to the fact that he spoke English fluently and his passport did not include a photograph. 

Not everyone was happy with that change. Just two weeks after the official changes were made, a British historian Bassett Digby, wrote to the Times to complain about new methods. He wrote that in a form he described his face as “intelligent”, however, in the official description that was now mandatory alongside a photograph, it was simply described as “oval”. 

It is worth mentioning that during that time, the descriptions were provided by British citizens while filling out the application forms, and for that reason, the vocabulary in use was usually limited. For example, the records found that noses came in variations limited to: normal, ordinary, and large. Foreheads were described as normal, ordinary, and high. 

The lack of rules and regulations – what did the ID documents look like? 

In many countries, there were still no official regulations on that matter. There were no specified requirements regarding the size or the way the photograph should be taken, as long as they would fit into the passport. As a result, some images showed people in the company of beloved pets, or simply doing what they enjoyed – sitting on a bench in a park, riding a horse, reading a book or playing guitar. 

Moreover, some photos were simply cut outs of group photographs, and it was also common to see photos transferred from one passport to the other, with visible parts of the stamps from the previous document.

Besides passports issued for individuals, it was also a common practice to include multiple people in one document. Up until the late 1930’s, in the USA, married women weren’t allowed to have their own passports or travel abroad without their husband’s presence. Instead, they were included as a “footer” in their husbands passports, which would include both of their photographs. Married women would be simply mentioned as “John Doe’s wife”. 

It could be whole families with multiple family members, or groups of people that usually travelled together. In the latter case, the documents included pictures of all of the group’s members, sometimes including as many as 20 people in one travel document. 

Walter and Matilda Foster 1922. Photo by David Miller / CC by 2.0

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Examples of family passports. Photos: Neil Kaplan,

The standardization of identity documents

The situation regarding photo ID requirements changed in 1920. That’s when the League of Nations convened in France for a meeting that would be the start of shaping passports and ID documents into what we know them as now.

After World War I, border officials struggled a lot to authenticate foreign identity documents and certifications that would come in different shapes and sizes. The information included in the identity documents would differ, and the differences and the lack of standardization would make it hard to decide what was authentic and what wasn’t. 

The Conference on Passports and Customs Formalities and Through Tickets have formed new requirements regarding the size, layout and design of travel documents for 42 nations.

From now on, the standard template for a 32-page passport booklet would be 15.x cm x 10.5 cm, and the first four pages would focus on details such as the bearer’s characteristics, residence or their occupations.

By 1926, the second version of the standardized booklet passport was released in Great Britain. The specification required applicants to submit two duplicates of photographs printed on thin paper, exposing the full face of a bearer, with no hats worn, which remains the norm to this day. Pictures had to be a certain size to fit the box provided. The requirements became much stricter, and it was the official end of an era that allowed people to choose their photos freely and submit photographs that were not standardized in any way. 

In 1941, the British government specified the photograph size in inches – before that, submitted pictures were required to be “small”.

However, not everyone was happy about those changes

In the US, at the end of the second decade of the 20th century, the State Department issued a new requirement that even infants had to have a photograph in their passport document. After that, further specific regulations emerged, such as light-colored background, thin paper, and the size of the pictures – 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches and 3 inches by 3 inches. To this day, the USA is one of a few countries that uses the square ratio for their passport pictures.

During that time, many people from the upper class were unhappy with the need for passports and saw them as humiliating, as they believed that they should have been believed at face value. They believed that only criminals, refugees or untrustworthy people should have been required to have passports, not to mention passports with their photographs attached. 

However, with the overall social development, citizens could now obtain new documents, such as driving licenses, or personalized charge cards. Individual security numbers were also introduced, which led to spreading more awareness across the country, and contributed to raising people’s tolerance of identity verification documents and the stricter approach. 

Still, the change of people’s mindset regarding the passports themselves, there was one more thing that people did not like: the way their passport pictures looked. Far from the lack of requirements and freedom of choosing pictures themselves, passport photos began to look very similar to what we are used to seeing now. In 1930, The Times published an article, in which it was stated that “passport pictures are notoriously unpleasant and unflattering. The mildest mannered man looks like a thug or gunman, and a bright eyed miss becomes a heavy featured half-wit. Few travelers ever feel anything but a pang of horrid surprise, almost disbelief, upon first looking at the photograph which is to identify them in a foreign country.” to express the nation’s disapproval of a new, stricter approach. 

Modern photo requirements across the world – how biometric technology changed it all  

Although today each country has its own specifications and requirements regarding ID photographs, their purpose – and the need for a clear, recognizable image of a passport  or an ID holder, makes most of the requirements remain the same or very similar. 

As of now, the standards for passport and ID pictures are specified worldwide in a clear way, and the officials issuing identity documents are strict to ensure that all of the requirements are met. There is no longer room for specifications stating that the photographs must be “small” or “fitting” – in Europe, a standard passport photo should be 4.5cm x 3.5cm. In Brazil, the required size is 7 cm x 5 cm. All countries require that the submitted photos are in color, and there are no objects or other people visible in the pictures. A clear, bright background is required, unless a person’s hair is of the same color – in that case, it is allowed to enhance the color of the background to be darker. Moreover, the photographs should not be older than six months, to ensure that at the time of the submission, the photo is the most accurate representation of how the person looks. 

In the last two decades, there has been a strong shift towards developing new technologies, which also affected what our identity documents look like today. 

Some of the requirements across the world have changed in recent years, as a result of the development of biometric technology and tools such as face recognition softwares. 

Some of the rules that were introduced in order to enhance chances of appropriate biometric reading, include: 

  • The image should be front facing – photos should not show the profile of a person and should not be taken from any other angles. 
  • The face should not be covered by one’s hair. 
  • The eyes should be open and the ears must be visible. 
  • The image should not show the person grinning and teeth should not be visible. 

The role of ID photography during a digital identity verification process

Currently, face recognition technology isn’t only a tool that’s used at the airports in order to validate the authenticity of the document and verify the identity of its holder. It is also widely used during identity verification processes by the companies around the world in several industries, including fintech, banking, proptech, insurtech or crypto-trading. The list is long, and more and more industries that are shifting towards operating online, are required to implement proper KYC methods in order to be compliant with strict rules and regulations. 

Fully-Verified offers a video-based identity verification solution that uses face recognition technology in order to confirm that the user of the identity document is its rightful owner. 

Fully-Verified offers a video-based identity verification solution that uses face recognition technology in order to confirm that the user of the identity document is its rightful owner. 

During the verification process, highly developed AI technology is used, which allows for automatic comparison of the user’s face with the photo in the presented ID document. Additionally, in the case of both verification models offered by Fully-Verified (Self Verified and, Live-Verify), each step is controlled and checked by a trained agent.

For even greater security, the entire process is recorded in real time. This allows not only to eliminate fraud attempts, the effectiveness of which is much higher in the case of verifications carried out only on the basis of photos sent by the user. Video verification allows for direct observation or interaction with the user and for the effective elimination of deep fakes, the use of filters, or attempts to verify using someone else’s photos.

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