Most Visa Waiver Program Nations Meet Electronic Passport Deadline

By Jeffrey Thomas
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Most countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) met the October 26 deadline to begin issuing electronic passports to their citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The new electronic passport, or e-Passport, facilitates travel by helping to prevent fraud and terrorism, while protecting the identity and privacy of the bearer, say U.S. experts.

Electronic passports bear the international e-Passport symbol on the cover and are equipped with an integrated circuit or “chip” on which the passport holder’s biographic information is encoded digitally and a biometric identifier such as a digital photograph. The United States began issuing e-Passports to its citizens in August. (See related article.)

The e-Passport is one part of a larger plan unveiled by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in January to ensure the use of the best new technologies and most efficient processes to improve border security, while facilitating travel and welcoming visitors to the United States.  (See related article.)

“The United States is a welcoming country, encouraging citizens from all over the world to visit, study, and do business,” a fact sheet on the Rice-Chertoff joint vision says.  “While security remains paramount, we will ensure that the experience of travelers reflects this welcoming spirit – and shows that the United States is open to business travelers, tourists and students – while ensuring that our homeland is secure.” (See fact sheet.)

Visa Waiver Program travelers who have valid machine-readable passports with a digital photograph issued before October 26 do not need an e-Passport until their current passport expires, the U.S. State Department said in a separate statement released October 26.  Machine-readable passports allow data in the passport to be scanned by a machine. (See fact sheet.)

The State Department said travelers can determine whether their passports meet the requirements for travel under the Visa Waiver Program by checking the Department of State’s VWP information page on the consular Web site,, or by contacting their respective government. 

“The upgrade to e-Passports is a significant advance in preventing terrorists from using lost or stolen passports to obtain entry into the United States," Chertoff said in a statement released October 26. "I applaud the many Visa Waiver Program countries in compliance with this requirement, and we continue to work closely with the remaining countries toward their speedy and complete compliance."

Of the 27 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program, 24 met the deadline. Travelers from the three VWP countries not yet issuing electronic passports – Andorra, Brunei and Liechtenstein – will need to obtain a visa to enter the United States if they hold a passport issued on or after October 26 until e-Passports are available from those countries, the State Department said. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization established the technical standards for digital passports, and most nations now are redesigning their documents to comply with those standards.

According to Homeland Security, the other types of valid passports that can be used to enter the United States by travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries include machine-readable passports with a digital photograph issued before October 26, 2006, or a machine-readable passport issued before October 26, 2005.

Travelers bearing e-Passports go through the same inspection process at a U.S. port of entry as other travelers, Homeland Security said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers will have the ability to read the e-Passport's contactless chip at inspection booths displaying the international e-Passport symbol.

The 27 VWP countries are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Additional information is available on the State Department’s visa Web site.