DHS updates U.S. visa waiver program to include mandatory use of biometric passports

August 7, 2015 - 

The Department of Homeland Security has updated its visa waiver program with stricter air travel requirements on foreign governments including the mandatory use of biometric passports, according to a report by The New York Times.

The new standards will serve as an extra security measure amid the growing terrorist threat from fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq to join various militant organizations.

The visa waiver program allows citizens from the 38 participating countries to enter the United States on visits of up to 90 days without being subjected to interviews for visas at American consulates and embassies.

The program’s participating countries will now be required to allow more American air marshals on flights to the United States.

Additionally, the participating countries must use biometric passports with an embedded chip that contains a photograph of the traveller.

A small percentage of travelers who entered the country last year through the visa waiver program had the older passports, which typically do not have the integrated chip.

The countries will be required to use computer programs and databases that are able to automate the sharing process of travel records and other key data with the United States, as well as being able to track lost and stolen passports.

European countries, such as Britain, Belgium, Germany and France that have numerous citizens who have traveled to Iraq and Syria, are among the 38 countries participating in the waiver program.

The Obama administration fears that these citizens might have received training while they were in Iraq or Syria and could then use the new expertise to wage attacks in the United States or on American airliners, the officials said.

Last September, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that called for countries to share more information about travelers in an effort to identify foreign fighters. While American intelligence agencies say they can track these combatants, some administration officials believe that other countries could be doing more.

“As I have said a number of times now, the current global threat environment requires that we know more about those who travel to the United States,” said Jeh Johnson, the secretary for Homeland Security. “This includes those from countries for which we do not require a visa.”

Additionally, the DHS will review all the participating countries to ensure that they are adhering to its requirements. Once these reviews are completed, the DHS will likely implement greater security measures at border crossings for travelers from countries that the agency has identified as having flaws in their screening processes.

“DHS is also considering options available to encourage compliance, beyond utilizing the most stringent option of removing a country from the program, measures that are designed to achieve greater global security,” according to the department document,

The document also specified that the DHS would not make any changes to the United States’ programs with other countries “without first consulting with the affected country”.

The United States believes that at least 18,000 foreign combatants, including more than 3,000 Europeans, have gone to Syria since the conflict first started in 2011. Approximately 500 foreign combatants have since returned to European countries.

Johnson said that the “security enhancements … are part of this department’s continuing assessments of our homeland security in the face of evolving threats and challenges, and our determination to stay one step ahead of those threats and challenges,” adding that “the changes would not “hinder lawful trade and travel with our partners in the visa waiver program.”

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.