Smiling Frowned Upon in Visa Photographs
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Imagine being denied a passport for, of all things,
your teeth. It could happen, but not because they're crooked. Under new
rules for visa photographs that began this summer, the State Department
doesn't want to see them at all, according to a story published in
Sunday's Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.
The new guidelines permit people to smile for passport and visa
pictures but frown on toothy smiles, which apparently are classified as
unusual or unnatural expressions.
"The subject's expression should be neutral (non-smiling) with both
eyes open, and mouth closed. A smile with a closed jaw is allowed but
is not preferred," according to the guidelines.
So why does the State Department frown on smiles?
Smiling "distorts other facial features, for example your eyes, so
you're supposed to have a neutral expression. ... The most neutral face
is the most desirable standard for any type of identification," said
Angela Aggeler, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of
Consular Affairs, which handles travel-document guidelines.
A photograph of a person's face is considered the international
standard for a"biometric" or physical identifier by the International
Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that sets
international aviation safety standards. Last year, the organization
announced standards for machine-readable passports which would include
physical characteristics that computers could use to confirm people's
"To allow for best possible comparison, if you smile or blink your eyes
or turn your head, there would be fewer comparison points. So when you
go to the counter, you will look at the camera in neutral face to offer
the best comparison to the matching points on the picture in the
passport," said Denis Chagnon, a spokesman for the International Civil
Aviation Organization in Montreal.
Some photo shops and even immigration attorneys say they were
blindsided by the prohibition against flashing pearly whites.
Mark Knapp, an immigration attorney with Reed Smith in Pittsburgh,
said he knew about some of the other new guidelines for photographs but
not the no-teeth rule. Knapp said he learned about the new guidelines
from a colleague whose client's photo was rejected because of a toothy
"You can't make this stuff up, honestly," Knapp said.
"What is interesting is the idea that you can't smile anymore and that
they're rejecting photos. The idea that you can't smile is what most
immigration lawyers find absurd," Knapp said.
Janet Stewart, who works at a downtown Pittsburgh photo shop, said she
learned about the guideline the first day it went into effect because
she had a photograph rejected.
"I'm the only photographer that says, 'Don't smile,"' she said.
On the Net:
U.S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov
International Civil Aviation Organization: http://www.icao.int
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com