How will the Canadian government use my fingerprints? A Primer on Biometrics

November 2018

The Canadian government is expanding the use of biometrics information when determining who to allow to enter Canada. First, some information on biometrics:

What are biometrics?

            Biometrics consist of your photograph and fingerprints. 

Why does the Canadian government collect biometric information?

            By collecting fingerprints and photographs at the time an application is made, Canadian border officials can easily confirm the identity of individuals when they arrive in Canada.  Information can be compared to previous applications, to prevent fraud.  Fingerprint information can be compared against police databases so known criminals are identified. 

Who must provide biometrics?

            Eventually it will be almost everyone who wants to come to Canada, and who is not already a citizen or permanent resident.  For now, it only applies to individuals from certain countries.  This link will tell you if you need to give biometrics according to your country of citizenship.  

            There are exemptions.  For example, the Queen need not provide us with fingerprints.  Neither must infants.  Visitors with valid electronic travel authorizations (eTA’s) need not provide biometrics.  US citizens are also exempt, along with a few other groups of people.

When must you give biometrics?

            Biometrics must be provided when applying for visas to visit Canada, work or study permits, or for permanent residence.  Refugee claimants must also provide biometrics.

How much does it cost?

            The biometric collection fee is $85 CAD, or $170 CAD per family.  There are some other special rates and exemptions from paying the fee.  Refugee claimants, for example, are exempt.

            The biometric fee should be paid along with the application fee, to avoid delays in processing.  Individuals submitting their application in person at a Visa Application Centre (VAC) will pay the fee at the time of submission and have their biometric information collected at the same time.  Individuals applying online and by way of paper application mailed to an immigration office will receive a letter to present to a biometric collection centre. 

Where is biometric information collected?

            All Visa Application Centres (VACs) can take biometric information.  Additional VACs are being set up in countries which currently do not have one.  In the USA, there are Application Support Centres (ASCs).  Some embassies in Europe are providing biometric collection services while their VAC networks are being expanded.  Finally, certain Canadian ports-of-entry (POEs) have the equipment.  Right now, this is limited to airports, but eventually all POEs should be able to collect the information.  However, only individuals eligible to apply at a POE can have their biometrics collected there.

            Notably, there is currently no way to provide biometrics within Canada.  In a few months, Service Canada locations will be providing this service. 

            These links will help you find where you can provide biometrics:

Visa Application Centres (VACs) – this link also has the list of POEs, through a pop-up window

Application Support Centers (ASCs) in the United States

Temporary locations in Europe

How long is the biometric information valid for?

            You must have your biometrics taken every 10 years.  This is significant, because a permit will not be issued for longer than what your biometric information is valid for.  If you are applying to renew a work or study permit, it is important to know not only when your passport will expire, but also your biometric information.  Otherwise, your permit may be issued for less time that you wish.

            Use this link to determine how long your biometric information is valid for.

            For reasons I do not understand, if your biometric information from a temporary resident application is still valid, you must still give new biometric information when you apply for permanent residence.  

What if I can’t give my biometric information?

            There is an exemption available when it is ‘impossible’ or ‘not feasible’ to provide the information.  For example, it would be ‘impossible’ for someone with amputations to give fingerprints and they would request an exemption from this portion of the requirement.  ‘Not feasible’ is a more difficult requirement.  It should apply where urgent travel is required, or where the person cannot travel to a biometrics collection facility.  However, as this tweet from one of my colleagues to Immigration indicates, they are going to be very stingy in granting exemptions for the ‘not feasible’ ground:


The big question is, what is the Canadian government going to do with all of this personal information they are collecting?

Once the biometric information is collected, it is sent to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP screens for Canadian warrants, convictions, refugee claims, prior removals, and prior temporary or permanent applications.  The information is automatically checked against USA immigration fingerprint holdings, although it appears not to check against USA criminal databases.  Finally, the information is also checked against UK, New Zealand, and Australian immigration holdings, as Canada shares its biometrics information with these countries.   

After these checks are made, the personal information (name, date of birth) will be deleted, but the biometrics information itself will be kept in a national repository for screening and storage.

In terms of how the information is used to confirm the identity of a person entering Canada, this too is an evolving process as equipment becomes available. Currently, only major airports have automated, self-serve primary inspection kiosks (PIKs).  Travellers using these kiosks can scan their passports, make on-screen declarations regarding items they are bringing into Canada (they could also do this in advance using an eDeclaration app and then scanning the QR code upon arrival), and have their fingerprints verified and photo taken.  Facial recognition technology is used to match the photo with the biometric information. 

At other ports-of-entry, equipment has been installed to verify fingerprints, but this is only used where the person is referred to secondary inspection. Eventually all ports-of-entry will have the same technology. 

This may seem futuristic, but it is only the start. Transport Canada has a pilot project with the USA, the Netherlands, Interpol and others to test a new airport security system called the “Known Traveller Digital Identity”.  Biometrics are just a stepping stone.  This more extensive system would see that both travel documents and biometrics would be digitized and sent to authorities in advance of the person arriving at the country.  This will allow border officials to pre-screen passengers even before their flights take off.  The information sharing is done by a smartphone app.  That’s either very cool or scary, depending on how you view this sort of thing.