In the not too distant future, arriving at the Juan Santamaria International airport in San Jose (SJO), Costa Rica, will be a breeze,  checking you in 30 seconds, thanks to a new system that could be in place by the end of next year.

Arriving passengers at the San Jose airport are subjected to manual check. Photo DGME

The new system, which public tender went out last week, would scan your passport and biometrics (fingerprints and facial recognition) to verify your information. If all is in order, the traveler then moves on to the baggage claim and customs. A fail sends the traveler to an immigration official.

The Dirección General de Migración y Extranjeria (DGME) – Costa Rica’s immigration service – estimates to have the first phase of e-Gate in operation by the end of next year at the Juan Santamaria international airport in San Jose (SJO).

That is the plan as explained by Eugenia Victor, head of planning at the DGME. Victor added that the plan would be fully operations over the next four years.

“The intention is to reduce the waiting time of the passenger, but at the same time maintaining security, a balance between agility and control,” said Victor.

Image of for illustrative purpose from eGate Solutions

The plan was well received by the Cámara Nacional de Turismo (Canatur) – National Chamber of Tourism, that constantly receives complaints about the “long lines” at the airports.

“We have been aware of the project to digitize the entry control of nationals and foreigners; to modernize the procedure,” said Isabel Vargas, president of the Canatur, adding that the modern system also detects false passports. “This mechanism gives us more confidence with so much trouble that we have with counterfeits,” she added.

The change also complies with the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Rolando Richmond Padilla, deputy director of Civil Aviation (Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation) said  having the biometric system, with fingerprints, camera to take a photo and a chip passport “will demonstrate to the airline operators and industry, that the country is safe, that it applies the norms of the ICAO.”

The lines faces at times by arriving passengers at the Juan Santamaria aiport.

Urgent Innovation

According to the DGME, the Juan Santamaria and Daniel Oduder (LIR), in Guanacaste, airports see some 2.2 million, between nationals and foreigners, arrivals yearly.

Currently, passengers are subjected to a manual check to verify their identity. Immigration officials visually compare the photo on the passport with the face before them to verify that it is the same person.

Currently, an immigration official manual verify travel documents, authorizes entry and stamps the passport

However, the system has a weakness. One example, in 2016, six Syrian nationals were allowed into the country at the Juan Santamaria, the foreigners mocking controls, and later learned they had used falsified passports when detected at the Toncontin airport, in Honduras.

How does it work?

To implement the new system, immigration must enroll the approximately 600,000 Costa Ricans and foreign residents who hold a passport.

In the process, for Costa Ricans they will use the Civil Registry (Registro Civil) database of thumbprints of all Costa Ricans who have a cedula (national ID card); for foreigners, the immigration foreign residents database.

The process will be done gradually, applied to all new passports and replacements. New passports will have a validity of six years instead of the current ten.

The information is then available at all border posts, all 14 of them, in the country. However, the program will start first with the Juan Santamaria and then the Daniel Oduber airports. Then it will be extended to the Peñas Blancas (Nicaragua) and Paso Canoas (Panama) land border points and then the remaining border posts.

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