Europeans will need visas for travel to US

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The Independent Online

Most Europeans, including almost all British citizens, will need a visa to visit America later this year after the US Congress said that there was little chance of postponing a deadline for the introduction of biometric passports.

The EU has asked for more time to meet new American standards under which travellers will be able to enter the US without visas only if they hold a passport with a digitalised photo stored on a chip.

But the chairman of the US Congressional committee on the judiciary, James Stensenbrenner, said that an extension beyond America's deadline of 25 October was "most unlikely".

While the US administration is sympathetic to the European argument, Congress has taken a tougher line. Its stance raises the prospect that the EU could retaliate and impose similar measures on Americans travelling to Europe.

The US says that, of the 25 EU nations, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia and possibly Germany and Italy will start producing biometric passports before the deadline. But, even in those nations, people with old-style travel documents will need a visa to travel to the US.

Britain says it will start issuing the new passports in the final quarter of the year, which means virtually none will have been produced by the deadline.

The EU, which has already won one extension of the US deadline, wants a second delay until 28 August 2006, by which time governments have promised to produce passports with digitalised images. It will take a further two years for the EU nations to introduce a system which includes fingerprint data - although as yet this is not being demanded by the US.

Currently, most European citizens can enter the US under a visa waiver scheme if their passports are machine-readable.