updated 7/28/2008 1:11:46 PM ET 2008-07-28T17:11:46

Europeans and others who travel visa-free to the United States can start registering in August for a new online security screening check that will become mandatory in January to enter the U.S., officials said Monday.

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The new security measure will replace current paper forms that foreign visitors from the 27 countries that participate in the U.S. visa waiver program have to fill out once they enter U.S. territory at airports and seaports. It will not apply to land border crossings into the United States, where authorities will continue to use the paper forms.

The Electronic System of Travel Authorization — or ESTA — "will help to modernize our pen and ink system and bring it into the 21st century," said Jackie Bednarz from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "All travelers including children of all ages must have an approved ESTA beginning Jan. 12."

No fee will be charged to fill out the online form, which will be valid for trips to the U.S. over a two-year period or until the traveler's passport expires within that time.

The measure is meant to increase security of the visa-waiver program allowing the government to screen visitors before they travel.

There are 27 countries whose citizens are not required to obtain visas for U.S. entry: 15 European Union countries as well as Andorra, Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Norway, Monaco and Singapore. Eight other countries could be admitted to the visa waiver program next year.

The electronic system adds to existing identity and travel checks that Washington has imposed on foreigners since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Visitors already have to provide fingerprints to U.S. border guards when entering the country; airlines they use forward data including passenger names, addresses, seat numbers, credit card information and travel details.

The new security measure is being studied by the European Union to determine whether it constitutes a new visa restriction.

European Union officials have warned that if the new online travel security document represents a new visa requirement, the EU might introduce countermeasures for American visitors.

The U.S. government has repeatedly reassured the EU that the new system would not amount to a new visa, but would simply replace the current forms Europeans have to fill out when they arrive in the U.S. Those green and white forms require visitors to supply their names, passport details, the address where they will be staying and answer various questions, including whether they have been convicted of war crimes.

Travelers will have to submit their online application at least three days before they head to the U.S. and most should be approved within 24 hours, U.S. officials said. Those who have their online forms rejected will have to apply for a visa or seek further help at their local U.S. embassies.

Bednarz added the online form will be available in more languages like French, German or Spanish as of Oct. 15. The Web site is currently available only in English during its testing phase.

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