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Senate backs visa waiver extension

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The US Senate has given its backing to a one-year extension of the Visa Waiver Programme, the scheme under which travellers from US approved countries may travel to the US without biometric passports or visas.

The extension means that British citizens with machine readable (barcoded) passports will still be able to travel to the US without a visa after 26 October this year.

It also means that anyone travelling on a passport issued after October 2005 will need a visa, unless the passport contains biometric data. For now, the data required is a digital photograph of the holder, stored on a chip, but it is very unlikely that the UK will meet this deadline.

A spokesman for the UK's Passport Service said the British ePassport will be rolling out at the end of 2005, but could not confirm whether this would be before America's new deadline. The ePassport is the precursor to the full biometric passport which will contain two biometric identifiers - most likely fingerprints and a facial image - which is expected to make its debut in 2007/2008.

Te spokesman said: "If there is a need, we will make further representation to the US, but it is really too early to say at this time." He also confirmed that holders of barcoded passports issued before the 2005 deadline will still be able to travel without a visa.

Colin Powell, Secretary of State, and Tom Ridge, Department of Homeland Security, have both called for the deadline to be pushed back by two years. If countries are not given a reasonable amount of time to comply, Powell says, US consular services in affected countries will be flooded with visa requests.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the vast majority of British passport holders would qualify for the Visa Waiver programme. At the beginning of 2004 there were still as many as 200,000 non-machine readable passports in circulation. ®

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