Britons will need visas to visit US

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The Independent US

Britons travelling to the United States, even for short visits, will soon need a visa, it emerged today.

Britons travelling to the United States, even for short visits, will soon need a visa, it emerged today.

Currently, Britons can enter America for up to three months without a visa, under the "visa waiver programme".

But the rules are being tightened from 26 October, by which time citizens of visa waiver countries must have new "biometric" passports, which contain digital photographs and fingerprints.

American officials have been told by their counterparts in London that Britain will not be able to start issuing the biometric passports before the October deadline.

James Williams, director of a visitor registration programme, launched by the US Department of Homeland Security on Monday, said most of the 27 visa waiver countries "cannot comply" by the deadline.

He said Britain had already informed US officials that it would not be issuing the new passports by October.

The visa ruling will only affect Britons who are issued new, but non-biometric, passports after 26 October.

Anyone who is issued a non-biometric passport after that date will have to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining a visitor's visa from the US Embassy in London.

People with valid passports issued before 26 October will not need a visa, as long as the passport has a bar code.

It is understood British officials are lobbying Washington hard to extend the deadline or make arrangements to prevent disruption to British travellers.

It is also likely to cause concern among the global travel industry and tourism bodies in America.

More than 15 million tourists entered the United States under the visa waiver programme last year, accounting for two thirds of spending by foreign visitors.

Among the Britons likely to be caught up in the new regime are those heading for winter sunshine breaks in Florida, and those heading to ski resorts for the early season.

In addition to the difficulties the new regime may create, a marked increase in the number of people queuing for visas at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square could create a security nightmare for police.

A British Embassy spokesman said: "We are in close contact with the Department of Homeland Security on the issue of biometrics, and have been from the start, and we continue to work to find a solution."

On Monday, stringent new security regulations were introduced at American air and sea ports.

People entering on a visa now must be fingerprinted and have their photographs taken.

Those on the visa waiver scheme are not currently affected, but those on work visas are.

The US's 115 international airports and 14 major seaports are covered by the programme.

The system allows officials to instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the US aimed to be "open to visitors but closed to terrorists".