Hong Kong airport passport e-channels to launch for foreign visitors

Facial recognition machines to speed things up for passengers departing the city from early this year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 11:36pm

About 4 million foreign visitors to Hong Kong will soon be able to leave the city by using new electronic channels at the airport, rather than dealing with immigration staff, the government announced yesterday.

People aged 11 or older, and with electronic passports, will be able to use the system without registering in advance.

The department said it expected the measure to cut average processing time from 50 seconds per person to 20 seconds.

Director of immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai said the system could enhance capacity and efficiency, as many advanced countries issue electronic passports, allowing facial recognition.

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But he said the streamlined travel service would only be available for people leaving Hong Kong, as the procedures then are generally easier than for arrivals.

“Officers are required to check the travel visa and travel purpose of the visitor upon arrival and question him or her if necessary,” Tsang said.

“But [when he or she departs] we only need to verify the identity of the visitor, the passport’s authenticity and if the visitor is wanted or has overstayed. The procedures are less complicated.”

The number of foreign visitors to Hong Kong last year climbed 3 per cent from the previous year, to 14.09 million. Tsang said he expected around 30 per cent of visitors could use the automated immigration clearance system in the first phase, and that that share could rise to 90 per cent in 2020 as most countries would have adopted e-passports by then.

Visitors will have to place the e-passport on the reader before entering the e-channel. They then have to look into a camera for facial identity verification.

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“The computer will compare the image with the picture stored in the chip of the e-passport. No fingerprints are needed for identification,” Tsang said, adding that the gate would open if the visitor’s identity is verified.

By the end of 2016, 595 multi-purpose e-channels were installed at all control points which could be used by eligible Hong Kong residents or visitors.

Tsang said the authority would first roll out the service at Hong Kong International Airport in the second quarter of this year – April at the earliest – as it remains the busiest control point for foreign visitors. He said he hoped to extend the services to other locations in the future.

Since June, Hongkongers have been able to use automated immigration clearance system at all international airports in Australia without requiring prior registration.

Overall, 296 million passengers passed through the city’s control points in 2016. Of the 56.65 million arrival visitors, around 75 per cent were mainland visitors, a group which shrank by 4.5 per cent in 2016 compared with 2015.