WASHINGTON – Acknowledging international concerns, the United States will revamp its biometric passport (search) requirements to make it easier for foreign travelers from friendly nations to enter the country without a visa, The Associated Press has learned.
The new passport standards — requiring digital photographs to match with a person's unique physical characteristics by October and an embedded identification chip later — would be similar to international biometric (search) guidelines already in place.
The standards take a step back from what the U.S. initially envisioned for biometric passports, but a Homeland Security Department official said Tuesday they represent an "acceptable milestone for now."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the standards have not yet been announced, said Homeland Security still plans to require expanded biometric data in passports in the future.
But without the revision, visitors from so-called visa-waiver nations that could not meet the stricter standards potentially faced being barred from entering the United States this fall. The Homeland Security official said the department was expected to unveil the new standards soon.
Initially, the United States considered requiring fingerprinting or iris identification features in biometric passports, making the documents virtually impossible to counterfeit. A 2002 law required visitors from 27 allied nations that are not required to apply for a U.S. visa to carry the high-tech passports.
But the visa-waiver nations (search), mostly in Europe, failed to meet the October 2004 deadline, prompting U.S. officials to revamp their requirements.
The new rules would allow the visa-waiver nations to comply with less stringent biometric guidelines similar to those set in 2003 by a branch of the United Nations. Those guidelines require digital photos and machine-readable chips to store identifying information in passports.
The changes would come after months of negotiations between the United States and its international allies, and between the Bush administration and Congress.
Visiting Brussels last month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search) reaffirmed the United States' commitment to biometrics as a high-tech approach to security screening "compatible on both sides of the Atlantic."
"Right now, in many ways we are using the most primitive kind of screening — meaning we screen for names that match lists of terrorists and criminals," Chertoff said during that trip. "And of course, names are not the best way to identify people. They're certainly not as good as biometrics."
Chertoff heads back to Europe this week.
Also Monday, Canada's ambassador predicted that the United States would drop a controversial proposal that would require travelers to show passports in order to cross the 4,000-mile border between the neighboring nations.
Discussions with the Bush administration, which introduced guidelines to crack down on potential terrorist travel across borders, indicates that "passports will not be the ultimate requirements," Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Currently, U.S. and Canadian travelers need only driver's licenses to cross the border, although passports are often shown.
Requiring passports, which only 20 percent of Americans have, "would be a big change," McKenna said. "And it's become clear to me that both sides of the border think it would be a very damaging change. ... This would cause real havoc to the economy."
Canada is the largest U.S. trading partner, with $1.2 billion worth of goods crossing the border daily.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department was "looking at alternative documents that could be used to enhance security while meeting the intentions of the law."
Meanwhile, the State Department expanded the hours of its National Passport Information Center to answer questions about passport applications up to 17 hours each day. The center, can be reached by calling 877-487-2778.