US Visa: Why Can’t You Smile in Photos?


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The prohibition on smiling in the US applies to all official photos. Smiling is not allowed when taking photos for the Green Card lottery or a US visa, and it’s also prohibited in passport photos and other photos for official documents.

Why is smiling prohibited, and what is it related to? It’s not random; there are reasons behind it, connected to technology and security.

Smile Prohibition

The answer to whether you can smile in a passport or visa photo goes something like this: “An applicant can indeed smile in their passport photo if both eyes are open, and the mouth is closed in the picture.” Thus, in the United States, it’s not forbidden to smile in passport photos, but there’s a strict requirement: the face in the photo must appear neutral, with open eyes and a closed mouth. Bright smiles are not allowed. Why is that? It’s related to the use of computers for facial recognition at border control points.

Why It’s Done?

The prohibition on smiling has an explanation. Many entry points don’t have border officers; instead, computers scan travelers’ passports and take their photos. People can easily recognize each other regardless of their facial expressions, whereas machines need a little extra help.

Modern facial recognition systems at borders and airports use artificial intelligence algorithms. These algorithms compare the 3D image of the face with the 2D photo in the passport.

To do this, they need to accurately determine key facial features, such as the distance between the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, as well as the width of the eyes and mouth, and more. A smile can alter the proportions of the face and make this task more difficult.

Not Only in the US

The prohibition on smiling in passport or visa photos is not unique to the US. Many countries adhere to similar rules. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) sets global standards for travel documents, including photo requirements.

An IATA representative explains the smile bans this way: “The face has always been a standard for biometric identification according to the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization, but due to limited computer capabilities in recognizing specific facial features, a neutral expression has been recognized as the gold standard.”

What Happens If You Smile

If you still smile in a passport photo, you’ll be asked to take a new photo that meets the requirements. Incorrect photos can cause delays in processing your visa application. Even a slight smile in a Green Card lottery photo can lead to disqualification. So, if you want to avoid visa or Green Card application problems, take a quality photo at a photo center or studio that meets all the standards.

Other Prohibitions

Besides smiling, wearing glasses is not allowed in US visa photos. An exception to the rule is made for those who cannot remove glasses for medical reasons. Hats and headgear are only allowed if they are part of traditional religious attire and are worn continuously in public places. By the way, it’s not only prohibited to smile but also to frown or purse your lips or do anything that can alter the geometry of the face.

These rules are somewhat more lenient for children. Children are allowed to smile if their eyes are wide open, and the child is looking at the camera.

Importance for Security

The prohibition on smiling in passport photos is a security measure. It makes the job of computer systems easier and helps ensure the authenticity of the passport, which is crucial for security at borders and airports.

Don’t Forget!

Purchase insurance – the absence of an insurance policy can be grounds for not being admitted to the United States.

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