updated 6/12/2007 12:57:49 PM ET 2007-06-12T16:57:49

The European Union on Tuesday approved a European visa data system which will store biometric information like fingerprints and photos on 70 million visa-holders who pass through the EU’s borderless travel zone each year.

The agreement reached by EU justice and interior ministers will set up a common EU database which can be accessed by all 15 EU nations participating in the so-called Schengen borderless travel area.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, whose country holds the EU presidency, said the system is “an important tool” to boost border security, adding it would also enable participating EU nations to prevent people from so-called visa shopping between European nations.

The visa information system should be operational by spring 2009, according to EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini.

EU officials said the system will be the world’s largest database of its kind containing fingerprints and photographs of people applying or holding a Schengen visa.

Frattini said the new system will “offer a new practical tool both for consulates and border checkpoints,” to stop and apprehend criminals or terrorists at the EU’s external borders.

The new system beefs up security and aims to prevent identity fraud of travel visas issued by EU nations.

The visa data contained on the system will contain the name, address, and occupation of the visa applicant or holder. It will also include the date and place of the application and any decision taken by the country responsible to issue, reject, or extend the visa.
Citizens of more than 100 countries need a visa to enter the EU.

Authorities from the EU member states and Europol, the Europe-wide law enforcement organization, may access the data in specific cases if it can help investigate terrorist or serious criminal offenses.

However, non-EU nations like the United States, a key anti-terror partner for the EU, will not have access to the system, officials said.

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