Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

What the draconian new US immigration rules will mean for you

Transatlantic flights are full of interesting diversions these days. You can eat, drink, watch wall-to-wall movies or phone a friend. And should Cat Stevens be on board, your plane may make an interesting diversion to Bangor, Maine.

Transatlantic flights are full of interesting diversions these days. You can eat, drink, watch wall-to-wall movies or phone a friend. And should Cat Stevens be on board, your plane may make an interesting diversion to Bangor, Maine.

This has not been a brilliant year for people wanting to fly between the British and American capitals. At the start of the year, BA flight 223 from Heathrow to Washington DC was repeatedly cancelled on US government orders because of security fears. On Tuesday, United flight 919, serving the same route, actually got off the ground. But the captain was instructed by the US Transportation Security Administration to divert to the small city of Bangor, Maine. The reason: one of the passengers, the pop singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, was deemed to be a threat to national security.

Bangor airport, as I have mentioned before, makes a profitable sideline as a prime diversion airport for transatlantic airlines. It is the first, or last, US airport, and has the business of refuelling and re-catering a flight down to a fine art. The passengers arrived in Washington barely two hours late - except for the singer, now Yusuf Islam.

The unwelcome alien presented a problem for the US authorities. Instant deportation is routine these days, as America develops the most draconian entry rules of any major tourist destination. But there are no scheduled flights from Bangor to Britain. So Mr Islam faced overnight detention and deportation via Boston.

Don't panic: many of the British visitors turned away by US Customs and Border Protection have been detained for only an hour or two before being put on the first plane home. And Robert C Bonner, Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, says that the numbers of travellers being sent back will decline. "There's absolutely no reason for denying entry to people who don't pose any risk", he told me this week.

People who have technically infringed immigration rules - for example, those whose departure after a previous visit has not been properly registered - will now be "paroled", ie given special permission to enter America. But despite Mr Bonner's good intention to make frontier staff more welcoming, British travellers to the US are set to face increasingly rigorous restrictions.

From Wednesday, every British visitors to the US will be fingerprinted and photographed on arrival. Next month, the number of British people who need American visas will increase. And next year immigration procedures will tighten still further. So many readers have asked what the changes will mean for them that it is time to untangle as much of the red tape as possible.

DO I NEED A VISA TO VISIT THE US?

Probably not. If you plan only a short holiday or business trip, and you have never been arrested for any offence anywhere in the world, you are likely to be among the majority of British citizens who qualify for the "Visa Waiver Program". Just show up with a valid passport with at least six months to run and fill in a green form which will show what a harmless person you are. Upon arrival, you will have a digital photograph and an inkless fingerprint taken. If you do not happen to be a pop singer who converted to Islam and now works as a peace campaigner, you should be let in for three months.

Next month, though, you will need a "machine-readable passport" to travel visa-free. From 26 October, anyone who does not have one will need to apply for a visa.

The good news is that most UK travellers whose passport was issued in Britain (as opposed to at a UK mission abroad) will have a suitable travel document. Your passport is "machine readable" if, at the foot of the photograph page, it carries two lines of text interspersed with chevrons. It should look like this (but with your name, number and encoded date of birth, not mine):

P<GBRCALDER<<SIMON<

<012254219GBR5512256M13012

THERE THEY ARE! DOES THAT MEAN I HAVE A "SMART" PASSPORT?

No. A "smart" passport carries an electronic chip with biometric data about your iris or face and/or fingerprints. The UK Passport Service is not ready for this next leap in identification technology, but the US will demand any travel document issued on or after 26 October 2005 is "smart" for the holder to enter America without a visa.

WILL I NEED TO TRADE IN MY OLD PASSPORT?

No (though the US demands it must have at least six months to run). The new rule applies only to documents issued from 26 October 2005. So if you were to get a passport even the day before that, it would, in theory, be good for travel to the US until 2015. I say "in theory" because the American authorities may change the rules again as they wish. Like many readers, I have an old US visa that was supposed to last for life but which was deemed invalid some years ago.

The UK Passport Service gives "credit" to people renewing with nine months or less to to run. If your passport is due to expire on 1 May next year, you can renew it from 1 August this year and it will be valid to 1 May 2015.

WOULDN'T IT JUST BE EASIER TO GET A VISA?

No. US visas are now among the trickiest in the world to obtain. You can no longer apply by post. Instead, you have to be interviewed at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate-General in Belfast. Before you attend, you must pay £60 (which you won't get back if your application fails) and fill in a long and complicated form. Men between the ages of 16 and 45 must complete a supplementary form designed to weed out potential terrorists, with questions about any "Firearms, Explosives, Nuclear, Biological or Chemical Experience" you may have, "All Countries You have Entered in the Last Ten Years", and every charitable donation you have ever made. Trust me: you really don't want to go through all this.

Anyone planning to work or study in the US, and dodgy characters such as journalists, will certainly need a visa. The same applies to prospective visitors who have any kind of police record, even if you were never prosecuted, or have a conviction regarded as "spent" under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. As part of the "war on terrorism", the Home Office is exchanging vast amounts of data on individuals with the US authorities. If details of a petty offence are noticed by the border official, you could be on the next plane home.

WHY IS IT ALL SO TOUGH?

"All 19 of the terrorist operatives involved on 9/11 entered through US airports", says Commissioner Bonner. "In fact they entered 33 different times into the United States and were never stopped. That needed to be rectified, and we have rectified it."

For more information call the premium-rate number 09055 444 546 or visit www.usembassy.org.uk

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