25 October 2004
Foreign Visitors to United States Need Machine-Readable Passports
But noncompliant visitors will get one-time exemption,
Homeland Security says
Citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries entering the United
States must have either machine-readable passports (MRPs) or visas
in their non-MRPs starting October 26.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will enforce the new
policy at the entry points, Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson said
October 22 as he briefed reporters in Washington about the policy
change. The United States is requiring machine-readable passports
because they are considered more secure documents and less subject
Anticipating that some visitors from the 22 affected VWP nations
might not have the new high-tech documents when they appear at
the border, Hutchinson said that immigration officials are permitted
to grant a one-time exemption to this policy and allow travelers
entry without MRPs or visas in their passports.
The transcript of Hutchinson's briefing follows:
New Requirements and Procedures for Machine-Readable Passports
Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Border
and Transportation Security
Foreign Press Center Briefing
October 22, 2004
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. MACINNES: Good afternoon. The Foreign Press Center is delighted
today to have a briefing with the Under Secretary for Borders
and Transportation Security from the Homeland Security Department,
Asa Hutchinson. We have New York with us on a passive feed; if
they have questions, they can call in and we'll pass those questions
This is a briefing on machine-readable passports. This is not
the first time, I believe, you've been here, you've done this before,
and so without much further ado, because it is Friday in the afternoon,
we'll just start.
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: Thank you, and thank you for your
attention on a Friday afternoon. I do have a brief announcement,
an explanation to provide to you, and my announcement pertains
to the countries that requested extensions from the machine-readable
passport deadline that was originally, last October, based upon
the Secretary of State's designation, was extended to this October
26th. As you know, there's a statutory requirement for Visa Waiver
Program travelers to have a machine-readable passport, and it is
a responsibility of [the Department of] Homeland Security to ensure
that the law is enforced based upon that legal requirement, based
on the requirements of security, and also based upon the nature
of America as a welcoming nation.
Starting next Tuesday, October 26, Homeland Security officers
will begin enforcing the law that requires all passports to be
machine-readable or the traveler must have a visa. And I want to
make you aware of several steps that we are taking to ensure that
the transition into this will happen with as little disruption
as possible to the travelers. Under our authority under the law,
we are going to allow border officers to make a one-time exception
of this requirement. This exception means that a traveler arriving
in the United States without a visa and without a machine-readable
passport will be allowed to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days. We
will annotate their passport and issue them a written letter stating
that they must obtain a machine-readable passport or visa for any
future travel to the United States. In addition, the traveler will
be processed through U.S.-VISIT, the biometric U.S. entry-exit
We want to accomplish our objective of full compliance as soon
as possible, but we also want people to understand that we are
taking steps to ensure that their first experience in the United
States will be a positive experience. We believe that these steps
are prudent, considering the nature of the violation, but we also
want to encourage people, by this announcement today, to make an
effort to immediately update their travel documents to conform
to U.S. travel rules. People who want to enjoy the ease of traveling
to the United States without a visa need to take steps now, today,
to ensure that they meet the requirements of U.S. law for their
I would end by saying that this policy will be reviewed in six
months to see whether any adjustments need to be made, but we wanted
to take advantage of this opportunity to advise the public in general,
particularly our international audience, of these new procedures,
requirements, and how this new requirement will be implemented.
With that, I'm happy to answer any questions.
QUESTION: Charlene Porter with the Washington File. Mr. Hutchinson,
would you please offer a little bit more context about the international
security concerns in terms of why a machine-readable passport is
a better document, not just for travel just to the United States,
but U.S. travelers anywhere, why this is a document that you feel
is a more sound travel document?
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: Good question, and thank you for it.
A machine-readable passport has more security features than a passport
that does not have the strip, that is not machine-readable. The
security features are something that is necessary in today's environment.
And as you know, we are moving actually beyond the machine-readable
requirement even to including a biometric feature, with that deadline
being October of 2005. But the machine-readable passports have
additional security features that are important and that minimize
the ability to fraudulently use a passport, and those added security
features are important for compliance with our laws and for the
nature of today's world.
QUESTION: Edith Gruenwald, Austrian Press Agency. It says here
the Custom and Border Protection officer is permitted to grant
a one-time exemption to admit the traveler to the United States.
So the traveler has no guarantee that he will get this exemption,
or it can be that the first time without a machine-readable passport
he will be sent back, or not?
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: No, the traveler, first of all --
we hope by this announcement and the emphasis that's been placed
during the last year -- will comply, will have a machine-readable
passport. But we also are fully aware that there's varying capabilities
by the countries, there's various levels of machine-readable passports
that have been issued, and that there will be some travelers that
have not heard of this announcement, that have made the travel
arrangements, that will be coming to the United States with their
family or with others. And we are making it clear that they will
not be simply turned back, but they will be allowed into the United
States and not be turned back simply because there is a noncompliance
with machine-readable passport requirement. And so they will be
allowed in. The passport will be annotated. It will be noted. It
will be stamped that this is a one-time entry permission and that
the next time they would return to the United States, they would
be required to have a machine-readable passport and they would
be denied entry if they do not.
QUESTION: Miroslav Konvalina, Czech Radio. People in Czech Republic
have different problems that, if they have new passport, they don't
have visa in new passport. And is the visa in the old passport
still valid or they have to get new visa for new passport?
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: If they have a visa that is still
effective, then as long as they have that visa, then the old passport
will be sufficient [in terms of the visa, and in addition they'll
need a new passport that is machine-readable].
QUESTION: Thank you. Russian News Agency, ITAR-TASS. I have, actually,
two questions. The first one is that Russia is going to make new
passports, and are United States willing to help us in this thing,
yes? And maybe there will be some cooperations between our departments?
And the second question is that U.S. Government basically set
a new deadline for introduction of new biometrical passports and
Russia is not a part of this program, but if we are not available
to do this until October of the next year, if there will be some
further restrictions on Russian travelers to United States?
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: These new passport requirements apply
to the Visa Waiver countries and so this will not inhibit or be
a problem for those countries that have traditionally had a visa
requirement, and so there will not be any adverse impact.
We certainly applaud all of the countries that are moving toward
more secure passports and we have a strong level of international
cooperation and discussion on the technical requirements, on the
testing of these, and we certainly include Russia in those discussions.
And so whereas the responsibility and the technical capability
lies with the individual countries, we certainly have a good level
of exchange from a technical standpoint and from cooperation and
sharing of best practices with those countries.
QUESTION: Patrick Jarreau, Le Monde. Are all American citizens
required to have machine-readable passports, and do they have them?
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: The State Department is responsible,
of course, for issuing our U.S. passports and the requirements
-- the answer is yes, they have -- we have a program to issue machine-readable
passports, we are issuing machine-readable passports, and we are
working aggressively to meet the requirements for a biometric feature
in those machine-readable passports. But that is not a part of
the requirements for Visa Waiver countries. We're undertaking that
independently of the statutory requirement.
QUESTION: Hi, Leslie Miller with AP International. If I could
just follow up on that. Do you know what the plans are for RFID
passports for U.S. citizens?
UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: No, I do not. That probably needs
to be addressed to the State Department.
Thank you for your attention to this important issue -- thank
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs,
U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)