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  • From 1 April 2016 UK travellers will be denied entry to flights at UK airports to the USA unless they have a biometric passport.
  • ESTA visa waivers must be valid for all new biometric passports.
  • Anyone flying to the USA for business or pleasure must now hold a passport that contains an electronic chip – even if you have already been granted an electronic visa.

At the end of 2015 the USA quietly announced new rules requiring any travellers taking advantage of its ESTA visa waiver scheme to hold a biometric passport. The new rules came into effect on 1 April 2016 but a lack of publicity about the change meant that many travellers only became aware of the issue when trying to check in for their flights. To further complicate matters, it was possible to obtain ESTA clearance even with an old-style passport.

Passengers not holding a biometric passport are being refused entry on flights to the USA at UK airports. Some of those with biometric passports are also discovering that their existing ESTA visa waiver was only valid for their old passport and not their new biometric one, requiring them to reapply for ESTA approval.

The standard time to process a passport application is three weeks. Anyone needing a passport more quickly needs to make an appointment at a passport office in either London, Liverpool, Belfast, Durham, Glasgow, Newport or Peterborough – and must be prepared to pay at least £128.

What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), administered by the Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the State Department, permits citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa. In return, those 38 countries must permit U.S. citizens and nationals to travel to their countries for a similar length of time without a visa for business or tourism purposes.

What is an ESTA?

Visa Waiver Program travellers are required to apply for and receive an approved travel authorisation via ESTA to board a plane or vessel bound for the United States. Please note that a travel authorisation via ESTA is not a guarantee of admission into the United States. Travellers must establish their eligibility for the program during inspection by an officer at a port of entry.

What to do now

  • Check the passport of every member of your family to see whether it is a biometric one, particularly older members. The Home Office stopped issuing non-biometric ones in the autumn of 2006.
  • Renew your passport to obtain a biometric one, allowing plenty of time before you travel, then reapply for an ESTA visa waiver for new biometric passports.
  • For all biometric passports ensure any existing ESTA visa waivers are still valid.

Note

As part of its latest restrictions, the USA also implemented changes to prevent foreign nationals who have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan or Syria from entering the country without a visa. It also denied automatic visa waivers for foreigners who have dual Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Syrian citizenship.

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