Passengers travelling to the United States from countries whose citizens do not need visas must register online with the US government at least 72 hours before departure, in the latest measure to strengthen American security.
Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, on Tuesday announced the new rule, which the Financial Times first reported on Monday.
“Rather than relying on paper-based procedures, this system will leverage 21st century electronic means to obtain basic information about who is travelling to the US without a visa,” said Mr Chertoff.
“Getting this information in advance enables our frontline personnel to determine whether a visa-free traveller presents a threat, before boarding an aircraft or arriving on our shores. It is a relatively simple and effective way to strengthen our security, and that of international travellers, while helping to preserve an important programme for key allies.”
European companies last year expressed concern after the Homeland Security department floated the idea of requiring passengers to register 48 hours in advance, believing it could complicate last-minute business travel. Although the new rule requires 72 hours advance registration, it will be valid for multiple entries over a two-year period.
The rule will only apply to citizens of the 27 visa-waiver programme countries, which includes most of western Europe, in addition to Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. The US has signed agreements with eight other countries – including the Czech Republic, Hungary and South Korea – putting them on track to join the programme.
Under the system, passengers will submit the same information that is currently included in the I-94 immigration form that must be filled before entering the US. Passengers will be able to register from August, although the rule will become mandatory in January. Registration will be possible through travel agents, airline websites or through a special US government website.
A homeland security official said the system was created to make it more difficult for terrorists who are nationals of visa waiver countries to enter the US, mentioning Richard Reid, the UK “shoe bomber” convicted for trying to blow up an airliner. Zacarias Moussaoui, the French national who was convicted of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, entered the US without a visa.
“History has shown that it is naive to assume a traveller from a [visa waiver] country automatically constitutes a lesser threat than a visa applicant who has undergone greater scrutiny prior to travel,” said the official. “There is also a concern about radicalisation in Europe and that Europe could be a platform for striking at the US.”
Earlier this year, General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, warned that al-Qaeda was trying to recruit westerners as potential attackers because they would be able to blend into the US. Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in April added that al-Qaeda realised that holders of European passports would have less difficulty entering the US.
Fred Jones, vice president at Levick Strategic Communications and former national security spokesman for Mr Bush, said the system could potentially complicate relations with Europe because of the suggestion that European countries were not dealing adequately with extremism. He added that it could have an adverse impact on corporate travel.
Susan Ginsburg, a senior staff member of the 9/11 Commission now at the Migration Policy Institute, welcomed the programme and also expressed concern that the Homeland Security department had not conducted a pilot programme.
“I am quite certain that having the information in advance will be important and helpful. But it is a question of whether it can be implemented smoothly and without the appearance of discrimination and without causing a choke point at the consular offices, and potentially at secondary [checks].”
The US official said the government decided that a pilot run was not necessary because the programme was not particularly complicated. He added that the US originally intended to call the programme ETA [electronic travel authorisation] but chose ESTA after Spanish officials expressed reservations because of the Basque separatist group with the same name.
”Successful implementation of ESTA will enhance the security of the visa waiver programme, addressing one of the vulnerabilities this Committee sought to correct in the 9/11 Act,” said Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House homeland security committee. ”For this programme to succeed, DHS [the department of homeland security] must deploy a workable solution, educate international travellers, and partner effectively with the travel industry.”
Email the reporter at Demetri.Sevastopulo@ft.com