Last updated: 03:41 PM ET, Fri August 07 2015

DHS Announces Stricter Visa Waiver Program, Biometric-Chip Passports

Impacting Travel | Patrick Clarke | August 07, 2015

DHS Announces Stricter Visa Waiver Program, Biometric-Chip Passports

The United States is tightening up its visa waiver program amid concerns about the growing number of foreign fighters traveling to the combative Syria-Iraq region.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced several significant changes to the program Thursday, including requiring those participating travelers to use e-passports and paper passports containing microchips that retain biometric information, Reuters reported.

Biometrics involve technology that measures and analyzes human characteristics including fingerprints and other attributes in order to ensure someone's identity. 

"The current global threat environment requires that we know more about those who travel to the United States. This includes those from countries for which we do not require a visa," DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement via Reuters.

What's more, the DHS announced it will expand air marshal presence on international flights. 

The changes — which arrive in the wake of intense criticism from lawmakers, including the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein — apply to the more than three dozen countries currently in the U.S.'s visa waiver program.

The new changes, which clearly go a step beyond recent measures requiring designated travelers to provide additional information to the U.S., also entail that those 38 participating countries use an international database to screen for lost and stolen passports. 

This past February, the U.S. intelligence community determined that, since 2011, roughly 20,000 foreign fighters, 17 percent of which were Westerners, had traveled to the Syria-Iraq region. Those findings helped spur the new program policies. 

In a statement via Reuters, U.S. Travel Association president Roger Dow wasn't critical of the changes, instead stressing the significance of a fine-tuned visa waiver program. "Though security should always be its first principle, it is well worth keeping in mind how the American economy and job creation both benefit when the (visa waiver program) functions well," said Dow. 

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