Bangladesh launched electronic passports or e-passports at the beginning of 2020 to complete the whole process of immigration formalities online as the first country in South Asia and 119th in the world.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic slowed down the progress of the project along with all economic activities of the country.
Now that the pandemic situation has improved, the government has already mobilised the project and people are getting e-passports from 70 regional passport offices.
However, multiple sources in the Department of Immigration and Passport (DIP) said that issuing and re-issuing activities of the new Machine Readable Passports (MRP) have already been reduced. The department has also decided to close the MRP services this year.
Brigadier General Saidur Rahman Khan, project director of the Introduction of Bangladesh e-Passport and Automated Border Control Management Project, confirmed the matter while talking to The Business Standard (TBS).
The project implementing company Veridos's Jack Farley, who is also the assistant project director of the e-passport project, told TBS that they have already installed 15 e-gates to the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Dhaka. Another 35 e-gates will be installed this year to other airports and land ports.
A source from Veridos informed that three e-gates will be installed at Benapole Landport and another two at Burimari Landport.
Jack Farley also said that they are now able to formulate 10,000-15,000 applicant's data in a day. He said Veridos is now able to produce at least 15,000 passports per day.
"The Covid-19 pandemic hampered our works in various ways. We could not bring some machines yet due to the pandemic. Otherwise, the progress of the project would be better now," he added.
Workstations with biometric enrollment equipment enable staff at all passport offices to collect the necessary data from citizens, including fingerprints, iris scans and colour photos.
Since January 2020, citizens have been able to schedule online appointments for enrollment, which allows them to avoid long delays. More than half a million citizens have applied for e-passports via the online portal.
Ahsan Al Emon, a post-graduate student of Sylhet Agricultural University, applied for an e-passport on 23 February and received the much-desired passport on 3 March – just within seven working days.
"I had a Machine Readable Passport earlier. It took only seven working days for MRP to e-passport conversion. It is unbelievable service from a government organisation," he said.
Ahsan further said that he applied in the regional passport office, Sylhet for a 48-page Express category passport with a validity of 10 years. He had to pay Tk8,050 to get the passport.
However, sometimes getting a normal e-passport or changing information like name or address is taking more time than promised by the authorities.
Major General Mohammad Ayub Chowdhury, director-general of the Department of Immigration and Passports, in this regard, said that in some cases they have nothing to do when the police verification is not done.
"We are issuing around 20,000 passports every day across the country. We are bound to serve the applicants," he said.
"The passport renewal process is now completely automated. In some cases, we cannot issue passports due to problems regarding printing machines and other difficulties," he added.
The production and personalisation centre for the new e-passports in the capital was completed in 2020. It contains a state-of-the-art data centre and is equipped with modern equipment. Its capacity amounts to 25,000 e-passports per day.
Meanwhile, machine-readable passports, which were the most updated technology a decade back, have already become backdated in the age of e-passport. As a result, the Department of Immigration and Passports (DIP) is trying to minimise the use of MRPs.
The department says that from now on, applications for new MRPs or re-issuance of expired MRPs will not be accepted to ensure the use of technology through e-passports. Everyone has to use e-passports to go abroad. This will reduce harassment as well as save time.
"It is easier to cross immigration if you have an e-passport. If you have an MRP passport, you need to fill out an immigration form separately. If you have an e-passport, you do not have to do anything about it. This will reduce the hassle for the expatriates and less-educated citizens," said Brigadier General Saidur Rahman Khan, project director of the Introduction of Bangladesh e-Passport and Automated Border Control Management Project.
The e-passports also add a layer of security to traditional non-electronic passports by embedding an electronic chip in the passport booklet that stores the biographical information visible on page 2 of the passport, as well as a digital security feature.
How to get an e-passport?
Major General Mohammad Ayub Chowdhury, director-general of the Department of Immigration and Passports, said that anyone can get an e-passport from three selected passport offices.
"All the proceedings will be conducted online. People can apply online without any hassle. An applicant needs to fill up 87 types of information, and among them 43 are mandatory," he added.
E-passports are now initially being issued from 69 Regional Passport Offices across the country.
"Gradually, e-passport services will be introduced in 75 Bangladesh missions in multiple phases," he added.
About the project
Bangladesh entered the era of 100% Machine Readable Passport (MRP) from the era of handwritten passports in June 2010. In 2016, the government took the project for e-passport. Earlier in 2020, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the e-passport programme as a gift of 'Mujib Barsha'.
The Introduction of Bangladesh e-Passport and Automated Border Control Management Project is being implemented by the DPI and German company Veridos GmbH with assistance from the Bangladesh Army, under the Security Services Division of the Home Ministry.
The project is being implemented at a cost of Tk4,569 crore.
The DPI and Germany Veridos signed an agreement on 19 July 2018 for the issuance of electronic passports alongside machine-readable ones.
Under the project, 30 million e-passports will be delivered in the next 10 years.