Visa-free visitors use new screening system

/ Source: The Associated Press

Some 300,000 people have already been approved to travel to the United States through a new online security screening system that becomes mandatory for all visa-free visitors from Jan. 12, 2009, U.S. officials said Friday.

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.

Jackie Bednarz, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the new scheme had worked successfully since it went online in August and fewer than 0.5 percent of applications had been refused so far.

Passengers from the 34 countries who do not need visas to travel to the U.S. from Jan. 12 next year will have to give details of their plans through The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, before buying flight tickets.

Questions will include asking passengers for passport details, where they will stay in the U.S., and if they have been convicted of war crimes. The system replace paper forms with the same questions that many foreign visitors now have to fill out when they enter the U.S.

"Not only does it work, but we have been able to ensure that people get a response to an application almost instantaneously," Bednarz said.

The scheme will not apply to land border crossings into the United States, where authorities will continue to use the paper forms.

The countries whose citizens are not required to obtain visas for U.S. entry are: 15 European Union of the 27 countries as well as Andorra, Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Norway, Monaco and Singapore.

A further 7 countries will join the visa-waiver program on Nov. 17 and they are: South Korea, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The new security measure is being studied by the European Union to determine whether it constitutes a new visa restriction. The EU said it could retaliate by setting up a similar check on U.S. travelers.