On 1 May 2016, Facebook user Vic Ryan published the above-reproduced commentary, saying that an upcoming vacation to the United States was disrupted by a biometric passport requirement that had gone undisclosed by his travel agency.
Ryan said he was the only member of his group affected by the biometric passport rule change, and while his passport was still valid for six months, he was unable to use it to get into the U.S. due to new standards there in passport technology; his claims were generally accurate. New, tighter U.S. laws introduced in late 2015 and implemented on 1 April 2016 mean that travelers to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (such as visitors from the United Kingdom) need to update their passports if they still have an older-style passport:
New legislation introduced in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings means British citizens intending to travel to the US with passports more than nine years old could be turned away at the airport.
As of 1 April 2016, tourists must have biometric passports if they want to visit the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows travellers from 38 approved nations to apply for and receive a 90-day visa online.
The change came as part of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, intended to tighten border security amid fears that terrorists could take advantage of the relaxed requirements to enter the US.
Ryan provided further details about his passport trouble to The Independent, maintaining that several other travelers found themselves ineligible to enter the United States during the same time, and for the same reason:
Vic Ryan from Lincoln was due to fly to to Florida on 1 May, along with his wife and his daughter and her boyfriend. He had applied in good time for an “Esta”, which was granted.
But when he arrived at check-in he was told that as his passport was non-biometric, he would not be allowed to travel.
“We had no notification of this change which apparently came into force on 1 April,” he told The Independent. “We made the decision for the rest of my party to go without me and I would come home.”
Mr Ryan was told to get a new passport, which he could not do until Tuesday because of the bank holiday. “There were a number of people at East Midlands Airport in the same situation as me but help was virtually non-existent,” he said.
United Kingdom passports are valid for ten years from the date of issuance, and according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s web site, the e-Passport requirements began nearly ten years ago, which means there is a subset of people from the UK (and other countries) who still could potentially be prevented from traveling to the United States:
The United States requires that travelers entering the United States under the Visa Waiver Program have an e-Passport if their passport was issued on or after October 26, 2006.
According to the Independent, thousands of people are potentially affected, as they are unwittingly still in possession of passports that are not yet biometric:
The last old-style passports were issued in autumn 2007. Using figures from the Passport Office, the Office of National Statistics and the Foreign Office, The Independent has calculated that 1.3m are still in use. As just over 6 per cent of all the overseas trips by British citizens are to the US, 80,000 people are at risk of being denied boarding.
On 6 May 2016, a representative from the Department of Homeland Security told us that new requirements were indeed implemented in late 2015:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection welcomes more than a million international passengers a day to the United States. The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system that assists in determining eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. Upon completion of an ESTA application, a traveler is notified of his or her eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP.
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 set the April 1, 2016 requirement for all VWP travelers traveling with an ESTA to have a e-passport. E-passports became mandatory for all countries of the VWP on October 26, 2006.
For travelers from VWP countries to travel under VWP with an ESTA, the traveler must possess an e-passport. If a traveler is not in possession of an e-passport, they can still travel to the United States, but must have a valid nonimmigrant visa and a valid passport.
After the law’s passing, CBP began posting on our website and on the ESTA website information about the upcoming change and a warning to anyone applying for an ESTA that an e-passport would be required beginning on April 1. CBP encourages travelers to check their passports and their current ESTA status to make sure they are in compliance with the requirement. CBP also sent an email to the applicants whose passports would no longer be valid for travel, as long as a valid email address was on file with their applications.
A number of UK citizens traveling to the United States retained valid (but not biometric) passports issued as late as 2007. The United Kingdom began issuing ePassports in 2006, but didn’t phase out the prior format fully until the following year. The Department of Homeland Security is recommending that visitors from the UK (or any of the 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program) take steps to make sure their passports contain the necessary digital chip and information.
Calder, Simon. “Passport Rule Change Leaves Tens Of Thousands Of British Travellers Facing Ban From US Flights.”
The Independent. 6 May 2016.
Johnston, Chris and Patrick Wintour. “Britons Flying To US Without Biometric Passports Could Be Turned Away.”
The Guardian. 5 May 2016.
Lockett, Jon. “More Than 400,000 Brits Face US Holiday Hell After New Passport Rules Introduced In Wake Of Paris Terror Attacks.”
The Sun. 5 May 2016.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Visa Waiver Program Passport Compliance Update.”
5 February 2016.
Home Office and HM Passport Office. “New UK Passport Unveiled.”
25 August 2010.
VisaCentral. “Passport FAQs.”
U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs.. “Safety & Security of U.S. Borders: Biometrics.”
HM Passport Office. “Biometric Passports.”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security.. “Visa Waiver Program Requirements.”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security.. “e-Passports.”