As of January 2009, passport offices in Grand Bahama and Abaco will be issuing the ePassport or Machine Readable Passport, in keeping with international regulations to have the entire country compliant by 2010, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs the Hon. Brent Symonette advised.
Holders of “old” passports would still have to apply for the new document at their respective offices; with the information sent on to New Providence where the ePassport would be produced and returned.
Since the introduction of the ePassport on December 5, 2007, the Passport Office, which falls under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has processed approximately 13,000 passports out of about 200,000 holders.
Mr. Symonette said although the staff at the Passport Office on Thompson Boulevard is doing an “excellent job” with the new high-tech system, there is need for a more enhanced method.
“Now that the summer rush is over, we want to impress upon those whose passports expire between now and the end of the year, or even Easter, to come in and get the ePassport. We do not want to end up with a large rush in 2010,” Mr. Symonette said.
There are also plans to relocate The Bahamas Consul General Office to another floor in the Ingraham Building in Miami, which would be upgraded to accommodate and issue the ePassport.
And since the immigration border control initiative aspect has been implemented, the system has been “working really well” in processing immigrants and returning residents at the Lynden Pindling International Airport, he said.
However, there will be a different line for ePassport holders in an effort to further “speed up” the process. “We want to make the entrance to The Bahamas as easy as possible,” Mr. Symonette said.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), of which The Bahamas is a member, has mandated that by 2010, all countries must be issuing Machine Readable Passports.
The ePassport was officially launched on December 5, 2007, in a move to increase protection against identity theft, heighten aviation security and combat illegal immigration.
‘The security of our identity and travel documents is of paramount importance to us. We
must ensure, therefore, that our passports and visas are resistant to fraudulent use, including the use of lost or stolen passports,” Mr. Symonette said.
The modern passport is being upgraded from a simple paper document to a more secure one – with biometrics features including facial characteristics, and fingerprinting. Each passport holder is required to have a National Insurance Number in order to facilitate the new passport.
In 1994, the Government of The Bahamas began exploring the process of upgrading passports and other travel documents. On December 22, 2006, the Government signed a contract with Indusa Global, a Greenville, South Carolina-based information technology development and consulting firm, for an estimated $12.7 million to provide four systems to initiate the project.
They are: an ePassport issuance system, a Machine Readable Visa system, an E-Identification issuance system (smart cards for holders of work permits, spousal permits, home owners residence permits, permanent residence) and a Border Control Management System.
“By this initiative, The Bahamas will be ICAO compliant. We have had to and will undertake several actions and activities to facilitate our ePassport and Machine Readable visa initiative, and to ensure that our transition occurs as smoothly as possible,” Mr. Symonette said.
Additionally, a supporting Key Management System for the generation and management of digital security keys for the protection and access of data stored in the passports and cards were also implemented. This particular system is used to add security to The Bahamas passport chips and smart cards, and forms the basis of verifying that the ePassport and e-Ids are in fact issued by The Bahamas Government.
This is an integrated project involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Immigration (Ministry of National Security), and the Data Processing Unit of the Ministry of Finance.
Meanwhile, Mr Symonette is urging Bahamians to keep their passports in a safe environment. He further advised that they photocopy the first four pages of the document, in the event it is lost or stolen. This would assist in processing a new passport.