Passport photos these days are usually pretty specific - certain size, color, etc.

But the odd requirement the past few years is that usually you're not allowed to smile in them.

We're discussing this here at work, and for every semi-reasonable reason we can come up with, we can come up with a reason why it is daft, so we're now left wondering why.

Anyone got an OFFICIAL reason?

  • 1
    Rules for biometric photos are that mouth may not be open.
    – vartec
    Jan 6, 2013 at 11:49
  • 7
    I believe this must be to make the job of facial recognition software easy. It is already a hard computer science problem, so a smile would make it even worse.
    – Elchin
    Jul 19, 2013 at 17:00
  • 3
    Could also be that if you are going through customs you are probably not in a smiling mood. If some customs agent is telling you to smile to match the photo you are not going to give the same happy smile you gave while making your passport photo.
    – Brad
    Jan 14, 2014 at 19:04
  • 1
    We used to be able to be any colour in our passport photos?? Jan 15, 2014 at 3:59
  • 2
    @hippietrail NZ ones are now greyscale only :/
    – Mark Mayo
    Jan 15, 2014 at 4:17

3 Answers 3


The contents of the main page in a passport is dictated by standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), specifically the Machine Readable Travel Documents standard (Doc 9303).

This document states that all passport photos should meet the following requirements:

  1. Pose
    1.1. The photograph should be less than six months old.
    1.2. It should show a close up of the head and shoulders.
    1.3. The photograph should be taken so that an imaginary horizontal line between the centres of the eyes is parallel to the top edge of the picture.
    1.4. The face should be in sharp focus and clear with no blemishes such as ink marks, pen, pin, paper clip, staples, folds, dents, or creases.
    1.5. The photograph should show the subject facing square on and looking directly at the camera with a neutral expression and the mouth closed.
    1.6. The chin to crown (crown is the position of the top of the head if there were no hair) shall be 70 -80% of the vertical height of the picture.
    1.7. The eyes must be open and there must be no hair obscuring them.
    1.8. If the subject wears glasses, the photograph must show the eyes clearly with no lights reflected in the glasses. The glasses shall not have tinted lenses. Avoid heavy frames if possible and ensure that the frames do not cover any part of the eyes. Sunglasses cannot be worn or appear on the person’s head.
    1.9. Coverings, hair, headdress, hats, scarfs, head bands, bandanas or facial ornamentation which obscure the face, are not permitted (except for religious or medical reasons. In all cases, the person’s full facial features from bottom of chin to top of forehead and both edges of the face must be clearly visible).
    1.10. The photograph must have a plain light coloured background.
    1.11. There must be no other people, chair back, or objects in the photograph.

  2. Lighting, Exposure, and Colour Balance
    2.1. The lighting must be uniform with no shadows or reflections on the face, eye-glasses or in the background.
    2.2. The subject’s eyes must not show red eye.
    2.3. The photograph must have appropriate brightness and contrast.
    2.4. Where the picture is in colour, the lighting, and photographic process must be colour balanced to render skin tones faithfully.

  3. Submission of Portrait to the Issuing Authority
    Where the portrait is supplied to the Issuing Authority in the form of a print, the photograph, whether produced using conventional photographic or digital techniques, should be on good or photo-quality paper.

  4. Compliance with International Standards
    4.1. The photograph shall comply with the appropriate definitions set out in ISO/IEC 1974 – 5.

The last of the points above is probably the most important as far as "why" - ISO/IEC 19794 defines standards for Biometric data interchange formats, with part 5 specifically being Face image data. According to the ISO/IEC 19794 documents:

To enable many applications on variety of devices, including devices that have the limited resources required for data storage, and to improve face recognition accuracy, this part of ISO/IEC 19794 specifies not only a data format, but also scene constraints (lighting, pose, expression, etc.), photographic properties (positioning, camera focus, etc.), digital image attributes (image resolution, image size, etc.).


Not necessarily for passports but NJ bans smiling on Drivers Licenses in order to be able to conduct facial recognition. There is also some blog entries with regards to passport photos but the reason is basically the same biometric identification and facial recognition.


Found this link on the US department of state website that basically refers to the machine reading requirements of the photos for identification.

  • 5
    "The applicant’s expression should be natural, with both eyes open. Normal, unexaggerated smiles are acceptable, but unusual expressions and squinting are not." er.. it says there smiling is OK? Jan 5, 2013 at 5:52
  • @JeffAtwood Closed mouth is acceptable. The issue is in the eyes and I guess cheek bones.
    – Karlson
    Jan 5, 2013 at 14:00
  • I do not know about you, but my face changes quite a lot when I am smiling widely, not just the mouth but also the shape of the cheeks and the eyes tend to hide behind skin. I have not used laughing and widely smiling photos for much longer than required by law.
    – Willeke
    Apr 30, 2016 at 11:28
  • @Willeke I couldn't help myself. toontrivia.ru/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/bremenskie-muz-pes.jpg
    – Karlson
    Apr 30, 2016 at 14:41

It's not just smiling that is forbidden. You are also not supposed to wink, yawn, frown, squint, or use any other facial expression that would make you harder to recognize on the photo. Most of the requirement for official photos actually tell you to "keep a neutral facial expression".

People are specifically told not to smile because that's what they tend to do when a photo is taken.

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