America tightens tourist rules and focuses on foreign students

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A sudden tightening of immigration and visa regulations by America means British tourists arriving on holiday this year are likely to be questioned much more closely on what their precise plans are and when they expect to return to the United Kingdom.

The changes are being made by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, INS, which has been criticised since the terror attacks of last September, for failing to monitor properly visitors arriving on tourist and student visas.

The new measures, most of which start in a month, will reduce the duration of most tourist visas to America from the present six months to only 30 days. Business people will have visas limited to six months and penalties will be imposed on those who exceed limits.

British travellers will still not require visas to visit America under the visa waiver agreement between the governments. But anyone planning a longer journey can expect to be asked more questions about their ability to fund their trip without working.

"We will be just tightening things up," said Amy Otten, a spokeswoman with the INS. "Thirty days will become the default length of stay. For anything longer, we will be asking more questions, maybe trying to determine if they have the financial resources to tour around."

The travel industry is sounding the alarm. "Any time we make it more difficult – erect barriers or tighten barriers – for people to come into our country, we give them incentive to go someplace else," Elise Wander, of the Travel Industry Association of America, said.

The INS, pressured by Congress, is especially anxious to end widespread abuse of its foreign student visa programme. There was consternation recently when the agency sent a letter to a Florida flight school granting student visas to two of the alleged hijackers of 11 September. President George Bush was furious.

At the time of the attacks, there were 600,000 foreign students in American colleges and universities and the INS said it had little idea where many were or if they were studying.

Foreigners planning to study will now need an approved student visa before arriving for their courses. Anyone wishing to switch from a tourist or business visa to a student visa will have to return home first.