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Know Before You Go – Brits Without E-Passports Turned Away from U.S. Travel

In April, British travellers en route to the United States started to find themselves in sticky situations, as new passport restrictions have meant some holidaymakers have been turned away at the airport, facing extra charges for re-routed airfare and fast-tracked visa assistance. This is as a result of recent changes to U.S. visa and passport laws, which now require all international travellers venturing to the States to have e-passports.

The trouble is, many people don’t know just what an e-passport is. No, it isn’t an online passport, or digital boarding pass. It’s a passport implemented with a chip that’s meant to help border control agents identify fraudulent documents.

Checking if you have an e-passport is easy – they’re identified by an image of a chip on the front cover of your passport, as you can see in the image above on the right-hand side, with the chip itself on the same page as your photograph. E-passports are now the standard issue when you apply for a new passport, and have been since October 2006. So if you’ve applied for and obtained a passport after this date, you’re in good shape.

However, there’s still a gap for those holidaygoers with passports that are technically in date through to October 2016, as the new law came into effect on April 1st of this year. This means that passports issued between April 2006-October 2006 are currently valid, even if not biometric. The BBC reports that there are about 1.3 million passports currently in date that do not have the biometric chip necessary for U.S. travel, leaving many holiday-ready Brits out in the cold.

The good news is, if this new law affects you and your passport, you can still apply for a non-immigrant visa to the United States, which will allow you to enter the country. This can be done at a U.S. Embassy or consulate, but needs to be done prior to any travel.

The recently implemented Visa Waiver Act (VWA) allows travellers with citizenships of participating countries that are entering the US for less than 90 days to do so with what’s called an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). This will clear you for travel into the United States, and is also necessary for international travel, alongside an e-passport.

In the past, travellers were required to apply for visas for almost every trip to the States – the good news here is, you’ll only have to obtain an ESTA every two years, or if you get a new passport, change your first name or surname, gender, country or citizenship on your passport, or if your circumstances that you identified on your last ESTA application have changed. Every application is required for each member of your travelling party, including infants and those just passing through the United States.

Even though these laws are in full effect, not everyone is aware of them – and if you find yourself caught at the airport without the correct documents, knowingly or unknowingly, you’ll almost certainly be turned away. So, in order to ensure you get your holiday off on the right foot, it’s always a good idea to look in advance at what your destination country’s visa and passport laws are regardless.

If you’re travelling to the US in the near future, here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to know about these new laws

  • When travelling to or passing through the United States for less than 90 days, you’ll need a valid e-passport and ESTA.
  • E-passports can be identified through the biometric chip image on the front cover, and are now standard practice among participating VWA countries.
  • Passports issued between April 2006 to October 2006 are technically valid but not biometric. If these are your circumstances, you’ll need an additional non-immigrant visa when travelling to the US.

If you don’t have an e-passport and aren’t planning any travel, you don’t have to worry. You’ll be sent an e-passport when you apply for a new one. Countries should have their passport and visa laws clearly outlined on their websites, but it’s your job as a traveller to know before you go. If you do run into an obstacle, you’ll still have the chance to join your party once you’ve sorted your documents, but, as most travellers are finding, at a sizeable cost.