No more visa-free travel

The government begins mandatory fingerprinting for almost all foreigners arriving at U.S. airports.


Suzanne Goldenberg
September 30, 2004 5:43PM (UTC)

Transatlantic travelers who are fans of TV crime shows can look forward to their own encounter with U.S. law enforcement under new regulations requiring mandatory fingerprinting for foreigners arriving at U.S. airports.

Starting Thursday, Britons, along with travelers from western Europe and other countries who for years have enjoyed a relatively uneventful arrival in America, will be subjected to a security regime devised in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

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On arriving at U.S. airports, these travelers, who previously traveled visa-free under a waiver program, will be photographed at immigration counters and have digital fingerprints taken by sliding their left index finger and then their right into a white plastic scanning device. Britons working in America have been subject to the regulations since January.

U.S. authorities insist the process is fast -- 15 seconds for each traveler -- and painless. "We have been taking finger scans of British nationals coming under the visa regime since January, and we have not had any negative pushback from that," said Bob Mocny, the deputy director of the new visitors' regime. "There is no ink involved; it's not like a booking process. It's a very simple device -- kind of like E.T. going home, where the finger glows red."

But it is going to be difficult for travelers to dispel worries about flying to America in a year that has produced a slew of airline horror stories -- all the unfortunate results of U.S. efforts to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks.

First, there were the repeated delays and cancellations of British and French flights to America during the Christmas holidays, after U.S. officials suspected a terrorist was on board. The long-suffering passengers of BA Flight 223 to Washington Dulles eventually landed on New Year's Eve, escorted by F-16 fighters. As for the Air France flight from Los Angeles to Paris, it turned out that the three suspect passengers were a child, an insurance agent from Wales and an elderly Chinese woman.

Next, writer Ian McEwan was turned away at the U.S.-Canadian border a day before he was to deliver a lecture in Seattle. The authorities later said the refusal was an error.

But there were no apologies for Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, whose flight last week was unaccountably diverted to Bangor, Maine, where he was bundled away by government agents and deported.

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Aside from Britons, the new measures apply to passengers from western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore. Only diplomats, children below the age of 14 and adults over 80 will be exempt.

Beginning Oct. 26 Britons will also need a machine-readable passport; travelers using older passports, or those issued abroad, will be barred from the visa waiver program and will be obliged to apply for U.S. visas. And a year from now Britons may be required to swap that passport for a new one with an electronic chip containing biometric data such as fingerprints.

So far, the authorities have not intercepted a single known terrorist. But the system has scored hits against other "undesirables," mainly ordinary criminals. "It's keeping people out that the British tourist doesn't want to encounter," Mocny said. He added: "The U.S. has always been a welcoming nation."

All the new visa requirements can be found at www.usembassy.org.uk.

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Suzanne Goldenberg

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