Having your fingerprints taken when you land in a country is becoming more and more common.

In short, your fingerprints are taken for basically two reasons: for security and to verify your identity.

The Purpose of Fingerprinting at Airports

1. Security Measures

By capturing unique biometric data, such as fingerprints, you can be identified and verified by making sure that you match you who say you are according to your travel documents, including your passport and visa.

This process helps to thwart potential security threats, including the use of stolen or forged identification, as well as unauthorized entry into the country.

2. To Assist Law Enforcement

When your fingerprints are taken at the airport, they can be compared with existing databases to see if you have a criminal record or are involved with ongoing investigations, which can assist law enforcement and may deny you entry into the country.

This collaborative approach between airport authorities and law enforcement helps in the early detection of potential threats.

How Airport Fingerprinting Works

Fingerprint recognition relies on capturing and analyzing the distinct patterns found on your fingertips, which are known as minutiae points.

These include ridge endings, bifurcations, and ridge crossings, which create a fingerprint’s unique identity.

Fingerprint on a fingerprint scanner

    1. Fingerprint Scanning: You are required to place your fingers on a specialized fingerprint scanner that then captures high-resolution images of your fingerprints.
    2. Image Processing: Your captured fingerprint images undergo image processing to enhance the clarity and accuracy of your fingerprint patterns.
    3. Feature Extraction: A system identifies and extracts minutiae points from the processed fingerprint images to create a unique fingerprint template.
    4. Template Creation: The extracted minutiae points are then converted into a mathematical template, which is a digital representation of your fingerprint pattern.
    5. Database Matching: Finally, the generated fingerprint template is compared with a database containing pre-registered templates of known travelers. The system then works to find a match to verify your identity.

Countries That Take Your Fingerprints

Many countries take your fingerprints at border security, including:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. Australia
  5. Japan
  6. South Korea
  7. China
  8. Singapore
  9. United Arab Emirates (UAE)
  10. India
  11. Russia
  12. Brazil
  13. Argentina
  14. South Africa
  15. Saudi Arabia
  16. Israel
  17. Turkey
  18. Qatar
  19. New Zealand
  20. European Union (Schengen Area countries)

Some countries also share biometrics data with each other, including fingerprints.

The UK and US share biometrics data with the U.S., while the EU will likely soon follow.

This is done by crosschecking fingerprints against global databases to enhance border security and prevent potential threats.

Fingerprinting Exceptions and Exemptions

While many countries take fingerprints as part of their immigration and security screening protocols, there are a few exceptions and exemptions, though it can depend on the country.

  • Age Limitations: Some countries exempt children under a certain age from being fingerprinted.
  • Diplomatic Travel: Diplomats and certain government officials may be exempt from fingerprinting.
  • Visa Waiver Programs: Travelers from countries with visa waiver programs may not be subject to fingerprinting upon entry.
  • Biometric Passports: Travelers with biometric passports may be exempt from additional fingerprinting procedures in some countries.
  • Visa Exemptions: Travelers from specific visa-exempt countries may not be required to undergo fingerprinting.

How Long Immigration Keeps Your Fingerprints For

The length of time that U.S. immigration keeps your fingerprints for varies based on the purpose of your entry.

U.S. Citizens

If you are a U.S. citizen and undergo fingerprinting at a U.S. port of entry, the CBP does not retain your fingerprints.

US immigration agent and passenger

Non-U.S. Citizens

For non-U.S. citizens, the CBP retains fingerprints depending on your visa category or admission status:

  • Visitors on non-immigrant visas (e.g., tourist, student, work visa): Up to 75 years.
  • Lawful permanent residents (green card holders): Until you have become a U.S. citizen or officially relinquish your permanent resident status.
  • Asylum seekers and refugees: Up to 10 years.
  • Individuals denied entry or deported: Fingerprints are retained indefinitely.

Can You Opt Out of Being Fingerprinted?

According to the U.S. Department of State:

A visa applicant who refuses to be fingerprinted would have his or her visa application denied on the basis that it is incomplete. However, an applicant who then later decided to provide fingerprints would have his or her visa application re-considered without prejudice.

In other words, if you aren’t a citizen of the USA and want to enter the country, you won’t be able to unless you agree to have your fingerprints taken.

As a sidenote, if you are a U.S. citizen, you are allowed to opt out of CBP-backed facial scans.

You Even Get Fingerprinted for TSA PreCheck

When you apply to TSA PreCheck, your fingerprints will be taken during your interview as part of a fingerprint background check.

TSA PreCheck lane sign at an airport

If you are unable to have your fingerprints taken for a legitimate reason, your TSA PreCheck security-threat assessment is verified through other means.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).