Starting Oct. 1, 2003 travellers entering the United States under the Visa Waiver Program must have a machine-readable passport.
Any traveller without a machine-readable passport will be required to obtain a U.S. non-immigrant visa in advance, at a cost of $100 US. Like the passport, this visa will contain machine-readable biographical data.
Countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program were told in advance they would be required to issue machine-readable passports. The new rules apply to adults and children.
There are 27 countries that participate in the U.S. visa waiver program, including Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan and the UK.
This requirement does not apply to Canadians, as Canada is not a participating country in the visa waiver program. The authorization for Canadian citizens to travel to the United States without a visa in the U.S. comes from other immigration laws.
Machine readable passports can be identified by a strip of typed characters including the passport number, expiry date, sex, name, date of birth in two lines at the bottom of the biographical page on the inside of the back cover.
If a traveller has any doubt about whether a passport qualifies as machine-readable, they should check with the passport-issuing authority for their country of origin.
Machine-readable passports are said to enhance security at ports of entry as they can be scanned at entry and exit points and a travellers details can be quickly cross-referenced with immigration databases.
This enables faster processing of travellers and also provides advanced passenger information, so border inspectors can do most of their processing before a flight arrives.
This requirement was mandated by the U.S Patriot Act of 2001 and was scheduled to come into effect in 2007. It has been brought forward earlier in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.