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Back in 2012, I wrote a post about how when you strip everything down, you only need three things to travel around the world: a passport, a credit card, and a smartphone.
This still holds true today, but those three things are quickly all being condensed down into one single thing: a smartphone.
I’m going to go through just how technology has changed to allow this to happen and what the implications are for international travel, and how close we are to taking an international trip with nothing but your phone.
Credit Cards haven’t gone anywhere, but the way we can use them has changed dramatically since 2012. Services like Apple Pay, Google Pay (which is replacing both Android Pay and Google Wallet), Samsung Pay, and niche payment services like Walmart Pay have changed how we physically use credit cards at the point of purchase.
The way we traditionally used credit cards was that we would take out our wallet, get out the card, present it to the cashier or stick it in a machine, sign a receipt or enter a PIN number, and then put the card back in our wallet. Now you just hold your phone next to the card reader while your identity is verified via fingerprint or face identification, and you are done.
Having used my phone for paying hundreds of times now, I can unquestionably vouch for the fact that it is faster than paying by credit card and often times faster than paying with cash.
Moreover, it is also much safer than pulling out a card and giving it to someone. When you pay via smartphone, your credit card number isn’t even exposed, so even the person processing the payment never sees the number. Moreover, a unique hash is created for each transaction, so even if that transaction was compromised, it wouldn’t expose your card number.
As an Apple Pay user, I can add all my credit cards to Apple Pay so I don’t have to carry multiple cards around with me. Banks like Wells Fargo are also now allowing you to access ATM machines via your smartphone as well.
During a recent trip to London, I was able to make most (but not all) of my purchases using Apple Pay. I did the same thing during my last trip to Canada, and that was in the remote Yukon. This is great for international travel, especially if you are American, as you don’t have to worry about chip and PIN support.
Smartphone payments are not accepted everywhere yet, but the number of merchants who accept it is growing rapidly. Much of it simply a matter of merchants upgrading their credit card readers. Today it is possible to go on a trip and exclusively pay for things via smartphone, but you’d have to be selective about where you stay and where you eat. I expect within 5 years you should be able to make almost all purchases via smartphone at any place where credit cards can be used.
This one will take a bit more time, but already you are seeing the first signs of this happening. The United States has adopted a Mobile Passport program which anyone with a US passport can use. It doesn’t require any special approval like TSA Precheck does. You simply download the app, enter your passport information, and you can use your phone on a kiosk instead of having to stand in line at airport immigration. (Only available in limited airports. Check the link for the list.) From the reports, I’ve heard from people who have used it that is can be as fast as Global Entry.
Australia and New Zealand instituted a cloud/virtual passport trial in 2015. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been investigating the possibilities of virtual passports as well.
Patrick Mutabazi wrote a great piece explaining how the future of virtual passports could unfold. Using biometric data, it wouldn’t be necessary to hold a physical document and it would eliminate the problem of lost or stolen passports.
The problem with a virtual or mobile passport regime isn’t technical, it’s political. All the tools are already in place to do it on the technical front, but you need to get every country (or at least a large majority) to buy into the same system.
An electronic passport might still be years away, but the first steps have been taken and it is easy to see how this could unfold in the future.
My guess is that individual countries with close ties, like the US/Canada or Australia/New Zealand, could implement a documentless system in the next few years.
Since I wrote my original post in 2012 there have been massive changes in smartphones. They have gotten larger, faster and have added features such as fingerprint and facial recognition.
Using a smartphone as a boarding pass is now pretty ubiquitous in the United States and more places around the world are adopting it. Hotels are now rolling out keyless room entry where you use your phone to enter your room. The keys can be delivered without having to stop at a reception desk and check-in.
In my previous post, some commenters were snarky and noted that you would also need to bring a charging cable with you, so you’d need at least four things. Even this, however, is going away. With the recent generation of iPhones supporting wireless charging, they are finally joining their Android cousins and helping to create a wireless charging standard. The industry has settled on the Qi wireless charging standard and hotels are already planning to roll out wireless charging stations in rooms.
Plans like T-Mobile in the US has made international roaming dramatically cheaper and easier. As of July 2017, the EU now requires mobile vendors to provide “roam like at home” as part of their plans, allowing everyone in the EU to travel anywhere in the EU at the same rates.
We are also only months away from the first 5G networks rolling out which should be a revolution in mobile bandwidth speeds.
When will we be able to take a theoretical international trip using nothing but our smartphones?
It can almost be done today. Almost.
Assuming you choose your destination and hotel carefully you could use your smartphone to:
- Call an Uber to take you to the airport
- Board the plane using a boarding pass on your phone
- Check into your hotel room
- Charge your smartphone wirelessly in your room
- Buy all necessary meals and items
- Return to the US and go through passport control with the Mobile Passport app
The only thing you would need your passport for is:
- Identification to get through security
- Passport control in the country you are visiting
Those two things are political hurdles more than technical, and both problems are already being worked on.
It will probably take the big technology players (Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc) to come together and adopt a standard for mobile identification and passports, and then governments would have to go along with it.
The soonest we could expect something is probably within 5 years, and I’m guessing we will have something within 10 years. As this is a political problem and not a technical one, things could go faster if there is a will to do so amongst the parties.
While there many benefits to this smartphone-centric travel future, there are of course downsides: losing your phone and running out of power. Nonetheless, when it becomes possible, I’m going to make a trip someday walking into an airport with nothing but my phone, the clothes on my back, and a smile.