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Biometric Passports: What You Need to Know Before Travelling to the USA

Red7 Blogs , May 17, 2016

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Requirements for entering the US have changed recently, and to make sure you don’t get caught out we’ve put together a little overview of what the changes mean for you.

WHY YOU NEED A BIOMETRIC PASSPORT

The introduction of the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) allows British Citizens of the UK and 37 other countries to visit the US for up to 90 days for tourism, certain types of business, and transit to another country without a VISA. As of April 1st 2016, all travellers wishing to visit the US under the VWP must hold a passport with an integrated chip (e-Passport). E-Passports were introduced gradually from 2006 onwards, meaning the majority of UK passport holders will hold a passport containing the biometric chip.

However it’s been reported that up to 5 million Brits could still be using non-chipped passports, which could result in them being denied entry to the US. The change of requirements was implemented by the US Department of Homeland Security due to a review into border control following the terror attacks in Paris. However, not many people were made aware of the change (including many travel companies) until travellers were denied entry.

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED

In addition to holding an e-passport, if arriving by plane or boat, you must also provide contact and employment details online to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to travel. This process goes through the Department of Homeland Security, and is separate to any details you provide to airlines. At the time of writing, the process costs US $14 and must be completed at least 72 hours before travel.

Waving USA flag on highway

NEW REQUIREMENTS UNDER THE VWP

  • Must hold an e-Passport containing a biometric chip
  • Passport must be valid for proposed duration of stay
  • Must be able to show you have funds to support yourself during stay
  • Travel must be for 90 days or less

It can also help at customs to have your return flight details to hand, to prove your travel is for under for 90 days.

WHAT COULD STOP YOUR TRAVEL

You won’t be allowed to enter the US under the VWP and will need to apply for a visa from the US Embassy or Consulate if:

  • Your British passport describes your nationality as anything other than British Citizen
  • You’ve been arrested for certain crimes, even if it didn’t result in criminal conviction
  • You’re a dual national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria
  • You’ve travelled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia or Yemen since March 2011 (there are exceptions to this, for example if the travel was for government duty, humanitarian aid or journalism – full details can be found here

If you have applied for a new biometric passport you’ll also need to remember that as it is technically a new passport, any previous ESTA would not be valid, meaning you would have to reapply for the ESTA prior to travel.

If you are in any doubt as to whether you will qualify for the VWP, or if you’re concerned that a previous ESTA may have been cancelled, then make sure you contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate to get travel advice.

THE PROBLEMS SO FAR

delayed flight

The new rules were announced at the end of 2015 by the US, but there was little publicity regarding the new requirements with many travellers only becoming aware as they were denied entry at the airport. Since then, there have been many reports of holidays being ruined.

One unfortunate man was left stranded at the airport whilst his wife and 2-year-old daughter went ahead to Florida because he didn’t have the updated e-Passport. In order to travel, the man ended up spending over £700 to get a new passport and a new flight before joining his family two days later.

Another report saw a romantic engagement plan ruined, as one man had planned a trip to Vegas with his girlfriend but was turned away from his flight because he didn’t own the latest biometric passport, despite having a previously approved ESTA.

Since the problems regarding travelling to the US have been publicised, the UK government has published travel advice for those travelling to the US, which you can see here if you are concerned.

So if you have any wild stag, hen or group holidays planned in the states this year, you’ll want to make sure your passports are all updated pronto!

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