New U.S. Passport Policy To Affect Foreign Travelers

July 17, 2009

A new United States passport policy has left some already unfortunate foreign travelers in an even more difficult position.

As of July 1, the U.S. began enforcing a policy that requires foreign nationals traveling on a temporary or emergency passport to apply for a U.S. visa if that passport is not an “electronic passport,” said Melissa Martinez, a communications officer with the United States Embassy in Costa Rica.

U.S. Visa Waiver Program – a program which permits citizens of these countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa, and vice versa – will be especially affected by the change in policy.

“It looks like now this is going to be the new policy,” Martinez said, “because it’s going to be required of any Visa Waiver Program country” – including the United States – when its citizens travel.

Member countries of the waiver program include Canada, most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore.

But the return flights of many foreign travelers in Central America are routed through one of the major international airports in the U.S., where they have to pass through immigration. According to Martinez, if the embassies of those travelers whose passports were stolen or lost do not provide temporary or emergency passports that meet this new electronic requirement, they will face one of several possible scenarios.

One option is for the traveler to fly to the U.S. airport and hope for a friendly customs agent to grant them a waiver without a fee, at that agent’s discretion. The normal fee for the waiver is $545. On the other hand, if the agent feels the person is a threat to the U.S., that person could be denied entry into the country.

The other option for travelers who have lost their passports and haven’t been given an electronic replacement is to visit a U.S. embassy and apply for a B1 or a B2 visa, which are two different short-term visitor’s visas.

In San José, travelers should telephone the embassy’s call center at 0-800-052-1465 and schedule an appointment, Martínez said. The call center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at a cost of $14. Both visas cost $131 in processing fees.

Martinez said the new electronic passports contain a small computer chip that, when scanned, transmits a person’s “biodata” and “biometric information,” which includes fingerprints and other information the government stores on them.

“Basically, there is some kind of electronic chip that distinguishes it from the passports that these countries had before,” she said. “It has a chip and the chip allows the (U.S. Department of) Homeland Security to read up on it.”

However, since implementation of this policy has taken a long time, governments have had time to update their systems to be able to issue electronic versions of temporary and emergency passports, and some already do.

U.S. citizens whose passports are lost or stolen will not face the same difficulty. “With the (U.S.) temporary passports that are given, they’re the same as regular passports, but they’re only valid for one year,” Martinez said.

–Daniel Shea

 

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