updated 6/25/2008 2:02:48 PM ET 2008-06-25T18:02:48

U.S. congressional investigators say that the government could be overwhelmed by visa applications because of new requirements for visa-free travel.

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A report by the Government Accountability Office released this week said that the State Department does not yet have a plan to deal with a possible increase in visa applications after the new requirements are implemented within months.

The concern involves changes to the U.S. visa waiver program. The United States will soon require visitors from closely allied countries like Britain and Japan, who can travel without visas, to register personal details online at least three days before they arrive.

The United States plans to begin implementing the changes for some countries in August and to require online registration for all visa-free travel by Jan. 12.

The report says that the State Department told investigators that it cannot estimate what impact the changes will have on visa applications because it has not received sufficient information from the Department of Homeland Security.

The report warns that some travelers who are rejected for visa-free entry after registering online are likely to apply for visas. If even a small percentage of all travelers from visa-waiver countries apply for visas, they could overwhelm consulates with their applications.

For instance, if the changes cause one percent of travelers from Britain to apply for visas, that would cause a 31 percent increase in applications. If two percent of travelers from Japan applied for visas, the U.S. capabilities would be "strained to capacity" from a 70 percent increase in applications.

There are currently 27 countries whose citizens are not required to obtain visas for U.S. entry, including those in most of western Europe as well as Andorra, Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. Eight other countries — the Czech Republic, Hungary and South Korea among them — are expected to be admitted to the visa waiver program soon.

U.S. officials say the changes will help the United States to boost the security of its visa-free travel program by allowing the government to screen visitors before they travel. Currently, visitors fill out paper forms on route and are screened by U.S. customs agents on arrival.

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