Foreigners entering U.S. airports and seaports — except those from Western Europe and a handful of other countries — will soon have their fingerprints scanned and their photographs snapped as part of a new program designed to enhance border security.

The program, to be up and running on Jan. 5 at all 115 airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports, will let Customs officials instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.

The program, called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (search), will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

The only exceptions will be visitors from 28 countries — mostly European nations whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.

Inkless fingerprints will be taken and checked instantly against a national digital database for criminal backgrounds and any terrorist lists. The process will be repeated when the foreigners leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they complied with visa limitations.

"I think people have come to understand that an increase to security is necessary," said U.S. Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger.

The foreigners will be fingerprinted and photographed when they enter the country.

Strassberger said once screeners become proficient, the extra security will take only 10 to 15 seconds per person. Foreign travelers also will continue to pass through regular Customs points and answer questions.

Photographs will be used to help create a database for law enforcement. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored and made available only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.

A similar program is to be installed at 50 land border crossings by the end of next year, Strassberger said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (search), which has been critical of several steps the Bush administration has taken to track or question foreigners since the terrorist attacks, said it was reserving judgment on the new system.

"The government hasn't explained exactly how it's going to work," said Lee Galernt, the ACLU's senior staff counsel.

The Department of Homeland Security (search) raised the nation's terror-attack warning to its second-highest level on Sunday, but plans to photograph and fingerprint foreigners were in place before that.

Unlike airports, many crossing points have no security and no warning of when travelers will arrive or depart, said Dennis Nixon, president of the International Bank of Commerce-Laredo.

"There has to be a process in place at the borders that can deal consistently with the transient traveler that goes back and forth," Nixon said. "And there are hundreds of millions of people crossing the border each day, so it's a huge logistical difference."