New passport rules to kick in

Visa Waiver Program

Beginning Oct. 26, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials will enforce federal requirements that foreign travelers entering the United States must carry machine-readable passports or present a nonimmigrant visa.

If a traveler does not have such documents, CBP officials could grant a one-time exemption to admit the traveler, who will then receive a letter explaining the requirements. Travelers may be refused entry during subsequent visits if they do not obtain the passport or visa.

"These are prudent steps to ease travelers into these new documentation requirements," said Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, in a prepared statement. "The United States is a welcoming nation and we do not want to turn people away because they do not possess the newly required passport or a valid nonimmigrant visa."

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 established the deadline as Oct. 1, 2003 — and extended it to Oct. 26 — for travelers from the 27 Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to carry machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers when entering this country.

Machine-readable passports and biometric identifiers are different requirements. Congress extended the deadline for the VWP countries to include biometrics until Oct. 26, 2005, because many foreign officials said it was a technologically complex process.

A machine-readable passport contains biographical data using International Civil Aviation Organization standards, according to the State Department Web site on the VWP.

"By having a machine-readable passport, the U.S. immigration inspector's job will be facilitated by being able to quickly slide your readable passport through the reader, thereby displaying important information quickly," according to the Web site.

CBP officials will not impose fines until April 25, 2005, on transportation carriers who transport travelers from 22 VWP countries. Citizens of Andorra, Belgium, Brunei, Liechtenstein and Slovenia already were required to present machine-readable passports before now.

About 13 million travelers from VWP countries visit the United States annually and can stay up to 90 days for business or pleasure with a passport.

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