Most countries meet e-passport deadline

All but three of the 27 countries participating in a program to allow short-term visitors to enter the United States without visas have met a deadline to begin inserting computer chips with biometric data in passports, the Homeland Security Department announced Thursday.

Any passport issued by Visa Waiver Program nations from Oct. 26 on must include the chip, which is designed to curb fraud.

The e-passports only can be used by visitors who are planning on staying 90 days or less. Australia, Japan and more than a dozen European nations participate in the waiver program. It began in 1986, when the State Department was looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary barriers to travel. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, DHS has become involved, and information security has been given a higher priority.

"The upgrade to e-passports is a significant advance in preventing terrorists from using lost or stolen passports to obtain entry into the United States," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

The three countries that failed to meet the deadline are Brunei, Andorra and Liechtenstein. Visitors from these countries must continue to present a visa along with passports to gain entry to the United States, until their countries get up to speed on the new requirement.

Citizens of the remaining 24 countries must continue to present a visa until they secure one of the new e-passports, with some exceptions. Anyone with a passport issued prior to Oct. 26, 2005, with a "machine readable zone," which is a series of codes at the bottom of the personal information page, may enter without a visa.

Visitors with passports issued in the past year that have a digital photo attached to the personal information page can also enter without a visa. But photographs laminated to the document are not acceptable, DHS said.

The new e-passports contain a marking at the front of the booklet, toward the bottom, that identifies them as the updated version. They will be scanned to ensure that the biometric data -- for example, a digital photograph -- contained within the document is identical to that on the chip. Should the chip's data fail to match, the carrier of the passport will be subject to an additional inspection.

Customs and Border Protection officials, who are charged with checking the various forms of passports visitors present, "have been trained on this," DHS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman said.

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