U.S. to require electronic travel data

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will make visa-free foreign travelers provide electronic information about themselves and their trip before they depart, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Tuesday.

A foreign airline passenger is greeted by a Customs and Border Protection Officer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia January 5, 2004. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

The requirement is to take effect on January 12, 2009, and is mandated under legislation passed last year implementing anti-terrorism recommendations of the September 11 commission.

The step is the latest in an overhaul of U.S. travel regulations since the September 11 attacks. Some measures have raised concerns in Europe over individual privacy and Washington’s strategy of conducting bilateral negotiations with member countries over visa-free status.

“Getting this information in advance enables our frontline personnel to determine whether a visa-free traveler presents a threat, before boarding an aircraft or arriving on our shores,” Chertoff said in a statement.

“It is a relatively simple and effective way to strengthen our security, and that of international travelers, while helping to preserve an important program for key allies,” he said.

The requirement affects people from so-called visa-waiver countries who travel to the United States without visas, for temporary business or pleasure. They will need to provide the requested information -- travel plans and basic biographical data -- before departure and obtain an electronic travel authorization before they board a plane or ship.

The U.S. visa-waiver program allows for visa-free travel of up to 90 days for nationals of 27 countries -- mostly older EU members and developed Asian countries -- that met certain security requirements. About 15 million travelers visited the United States from those countries last year.

Such travelers now provide the required biographical and travel data on paper, while en route to the United States.

The electronic authorizations will be valid for up to two years, and for multiple entries.

The department plans to begin accepting the electronic applications on August 1 through its Web site.

The September 11 commission is the congressionally established panel that investigated the September 11, 2001, attacks and made recommendations on how to prevent any similar attacks.

Editing by Doina Chiacu