The United States says it will begin in September to require visitors from
all countries except Mexico and Canada to be digitally fingerprinted and photographed
when they enter the country. Nearly 30 countries, mainly in Europe, had previously
been exempt from the security requirements.
Travelers from the 27 countries covered by the State Department's "visa waiver
program," including key U.S. allies like Britain, Japan and Australia, will
still to able to enter the United States without having to apply for U.S. visas
But as of September 30, they will have to submit to the digital fingerprint
and photo requirements, which have been controversial and prompted, in the
case of Brazil, the imposition of similar formalities for Americans entering
The State Department announced the change Friday in conjunction with a request
to Congress to extend for two years a deadline for countries in the visa waiver
program to begin issuing high-tech passports.
Those travel documents will contain computer chips that will include fingerprint
and other identity information that will make them almost impossible to counterfeit,
but many of the countries in the waiver program have encountered difficulties
in introducing them.
The tighter U.S. passport rules stem from 2002 legislation increasing border
security in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the additional
entry formalities in September should not pose undue inconvenience to affected
visitors and are by no means intended as a slap to U.S. allies.
"If that's the way it's seen, then it's certainly not intended in that light," he
said. "We are not requiring visas. We are requesting a two-year extension.
I think that is recognition that the program has a value and the program is
important. At the same time, there are security needs. I think everybody recognizes
those security needs, and the US VISIT program is a very, very low-hassle un-intrusive
way of protecting the public and protecting the United States."
Officials here say the digital photos and the scanning of visitors' two index
fingers at immigration booths at U.S. air and sea ports adds less than a half-minute
to entry formalities.
They say about five million people have been processed since the requirements
took effect in January, and that hundreds of people suspected of criminal or
immigration violations have been prevented from entering.
Congress had set an October deadline for visitors from the visa-waiver countries
to begin using the "biometric" passports or lose the privilege of entering
the United States without a visa.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
warned legislators last month of "grave consequences" if the deadline was not
They said U.S. embassies in the 27 countries would have been overwhelmed
by visa paperwork, and the American tourism industry could have faced billions
of dollars in losses as would-be U.S. visitors opted not to deal with visa
applications and went elsewhere.