What is the difference between RFID and MRZ?

RFID being scanned inside device

Last updated on December 6th, 2023 at 01:11 pm

Over the past 5-10 years, most national passports have been transitioning from the primary data storage format of MRZ to RFID. Both formats are intended to speed up border crossings and customs interactions by making passports scannable by specific cameras and hardware. Instead of manually reading a passport an agent can scan the document and immediately ingest a variety of fields.

Machine readable zone (MRZ)

Global organization ICAO sets the standards for passport designs and readability. There are currently three MRZ sizes, but the two most common are:

“Type 3”  – passport booklets: 2 lines × 44 characters

“Type 1” – passport cards – 3 lines × 30 characters

The dimensions of the effective reading zone (ERZ) is standardized at 17.0 mm in height with a margin of 3 mm at the document edges and 3.2 mm at the edge against the visual readable part. This is in order to allow use of a single machine reader.

Only characters A to Z (upper case), 0–9, and < (angle bracket) are allowed. The typeface is universally OCR-B, a typeface which is ideal for optical character recognition.

The following information is stored within the MRZ on all travel documents:

  • document type
  • document holder name 
  • document number
  • Nationality
  • date of birth
  • sex
  • document expiration date

MRZ has been the worldwide standard since the 1980’s. It is an easy format that anyone can use. However, wear and tear on the passport can render it unreadable. It is also limited in the amount of information that can be stored – because of this some fields such as long names, may be truncated.

RFID keychains

Radio frequency identification (RFID)

RFID, also known as “a chip” or “biometric passports” stores all of the information, and more, on a chip which is embedded inside the hardcover of the passport. It is the same technology used for embedding a chip into a pet for finding them when they get lost. It is intended to be read only by a device within 4 inches of the physical chip

Unlike MRZ, ICAO has not set a standard for what information must be stored inside an RFID chip on a passport. For American citizens, there is no personal information stored on the RFID tag, simply a reference code to a file the government keeps on you and agents can access at passport control. Most other countries store data directly on the chip itself. For Europeans this typically means all of the information about you is inside of the passport (e.g. name, date of birth, etc.) plus your photo and fingerprints. Most countries attempt to perform some type of encryption on the RFID chip to protect sensitive data.

Currently, 160 countries have some type of RFID. Notable national passports that do not contain a chip and still rely on MRZ exclusively are India, South Africa, Egypt, Cuba, Ethiopia and many more countries in Central America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. India plans to start issuing biometric passports in 2022.

Benefits of RFID vs. MRZ

  • A larger storage capacity that includes the ability to store images, as well as avoiding truncation
  • Harder to damage with less wear and tear
  • Embedded in the document, so does not take away visual real estate on the document
  • All data is transmitted and can be verified near instantaneously
  • Substantially harder to fabricate

Although MRZ is much cheaper to produce, and MRZ-readers are cheaper to manufacture, it appears that most nations are making the investment in the superior identity data storage format. 

ID Scanners That Can Read Both

Passport scanning and passport parsing can be performed on both MRZ and RFID, however the IDScan.net passport parsing SDK only works on MRZ.

For hardware that can handle both MRZ reading/parsing and RFID reading, take a look at our AT10K and AT9000 which can do both, in addition to reading drivers’ licenses and state IDs. IDScan.net offers a variety of solutions that can scan and parse the necessary information to keep security at a maximum and wait times to a minimum. 

Still not sure? Contact us and let one of our industry experts help to guide your company to the right solution that will help you remain compliant and efficient. With summer travel picking up, and security queue times at record highs, the time to upgrade your scanning solution is now.