Accessibility links

EU Foresees Delays in Meeting US Deadline for 'Biometric' Passports - 2004-01-10

New visa requirements for travelers to the United States do not affect 27 mostly European countries. But these so-called visa waiver countries have until October 26 to issue travel documents with biometric identifiers. The new passports may take time to produce.

For security reasons, U.S. authorities want visitors from currently visa-waivered countries - mostly European states as well as Japan and Australia - to have new high-tech passports. These so-called biometric passports would include such information as fingerprints and digital photographs.

The spokesman for the European Commission for Justice and Home Affairs, Pietro Petrucci, says it is likely that the European Union will agree to switch to these new passports within the next couple of months. But he says it will take longer to actually start producing them.

"This means, it seems unlikely that we will have this biometric passport, because it will be in the hands of member states," he said. "Each state passport is basically a national document that is going to be issued by national authorities. So, it is unlikely that we [will] have this in place by October."

October 26 is the American-imposed deadline when travelers from currently visa-wavered states must have the new biometric passports.

Mr. Petrucci says American travelers could face the same treatment when they travel to some European countries that have signed up to the so-called Open Borders Schengen Treaty.

"If our citizens are going to be asked for a visa to go to the United States, then we - when I say we, [I] mean the Schengen countries - we will be obliged to ask for reciprocity," he said. "And in one word, it will be a mess."

However, Sean Tipton from the Association of British Travel Agents, or ABTA, says the problem may not be as great as initially feared. He says those requiring visas from U.S. embassies or consulates will only be a small percentage of current British passport holders. Those who currently have what are called machine-readable passports - containing a strip of information that can be read in a swipe machine - will be allowed to enter the United States without having to get a visa.

"The vast majority of people traveling to America will be on 10-year passports, and in which case, this new requirement will not apply," he said. "So, it should not affect that many people. But the problem is the perception. People think it is a bigger problem than it actually is. Which is not good for the American tourist industry."

ABTA spokesman Mr. Tipton says many British visitors whose passports are due to expire this year are being urged to renew them before October 26, to avoid having to get a special visa.

"The U.S. authorities have said to us, though, that they will accept current machine-readable passports that we all have at the moment, as long as they were issued before the 26th of October, when this new regulation comes into place," he said. "So, it will really only be for people who need a new passport after that date, and for about seven months until again, we have biometric data automatically on our own."

Mr. Tipton says the new regulation is bound to cause confusion among travelers here, and he says the new visa requirement will undoubtedly have some negative impact on the U.S. tourist business.