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Passports and visa requirements

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Since 2004 the British media has been full of exaggerated stories about how hard it is to get into America. Most of the reports are sensationalist and obscure the issues. Read on below for a summary of the current facts.

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Passports and visas
The newspapers and TV over the last couple of years have been full of horror stories especially in the early part of 2004 which would make you think that if you wish to go to America, you will have to go to London and pay for a visa and get finger printed and photographed when you arrive in the USA. The reporting of this story has often been very irresponsible and misleading. Here are the facts.

After the dreadful events of September 11th, the USA introduced new rules to increase security around visitors to America. One requirement was that in visa waiver countries (countries from which you do not need a visa to enter the States like the UK) you would need a machine readable passport to enter the USA after 26th October 2004. The UK has been issuing machine readable passeports for the last 10 years and so most UK passport holders will not be affected by this. You may have a problem if your UK passport was issued to you from outside the UK ie at an embassy or consulate. These are not machine readable. In such cases get your passport renewed before you travel to the USA. You will also have a problem if your child(ren) are on your passport. Children are now required to have their own machine readable passport to enter the USA from October 2004, so get your children their own passport if they currently appear on yours.

From September 30th 2004, visitors to the USA travelling on the visa waiver programme have to have their fingerprints and photographs taken. This had been the case for some time for all visitors travelling under a visa. The digital camera and digital scan of fingerprints takes only a minute or so on top of the normal entry procedures.

From 26th October 2005 all newly issued passports will have to contain biometric data for the traveller to travel to the USA under the visa waiver programme. The US government have stated that for one year (i.e. until October 2006) a digital photograph qualifies as biometric data. UK passports have included a digital phtograph since 1998.

From October 2006 all newly issued passports will have to contain biometric data on a chip embedded in the passport. The UK hopes to be able to issue these passports from some time between January and June 2006.

Update June 2006 I can confirm that the UK is now issuing passports with a chip in them as required by the USA as I have just got my own new passport complete with said chip !

More information can be found at US Dept Home Security .

Criminal records and visa waiver programme
I get many e-mail questions along the lines of "can you travel under the visa waiver programme if you have some sort of criminal record?". People with serious criminal records have always been excluded from the visa waiver programme but this fact appears to have only recently become widely known.

The boundary of what type of criminal record disqualifies you from using the visa waiver programme is not clear. I have researched this and I repoduce my findings below.
Note. This information is provided as a service to visitors in an effort to clarify this question. This website and its owners are not legal experts in this field and accept no liability whatsoever for decisions individuals make on if they should apply for a visa or not.

Admission into the US is administered by the US immigration service. Visas are issued by the US Embassies. These are separate branches of government. If you hold a visa issued by an embassy, the US immigration officer at your port of entry can still decide not to allow you to enter the country.

The advice that the US embassy in London gives is unambiguous. I reproduce the following two paragraphs from the US Embassy website below.

Important: Some travelers may not be eligible to enter the United States visa free under the VWP. These include people who have been arrested, even if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction, those with criminal records, (the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act does not apply to U.S. visa law), certain serious communicable illnesses, those who have been refused admission into, or have been deported from, the United States, or have previously overstayed on the visa waiver program. Such travelers must apply for special restricted visas. If they attempt to travel without a visa, they may be refused entry into the United States.

Note: Travelers with minor traffic offenses which did not result in an arrest and/or conviction for the offense may travel visa free, provided they are otherwise qualified. If the traffic offense occurred while you were in the United States, and you have an outstanding fine against you or your did not attend your court hearing, it is possible there may be a warrant out for your arrest, and you will experience problems when applying for admission into the U.S. Therefore you should resolve the issue before traveling by contacting the court where you were to appear. If you do not know the address of the court then information is available from the Internet at:

However, remember it is actually the US immigration service who decide who can enter the USA not the US Embassy. The US immigration service require you to make the following declaration (filled out on a green visa waiver form on the plane)

"B Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an
offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a
violation related to a controlled substance; or been
arrested or convicted for two or more offences for
which the aggregate sentence to confinement was five
years or more; or been a controlled substance
traffiker; or are you seeking entry to engage in
criminal or immoral activities ? [YES] [NO]"

This is a lot more ambiguous than the Embassy statement.

There are two issues of debate here that I have been unable to get absolute clarity on

Q 1) A minor offence committed several years ago does not seem to fit into the definition above. Am I OK to answer no to the above question and enter under the visa waiver programme ?

Answer) Many people apparently do this if you believe what is posted in the many discussion forums on this subject

Q 2) Is there any way that the immigration officer at your port of entry will know if you have ever served a sentence in the UK let alone just been arrested and not sentenced ?

Answer) As far as the published information goes, this type of information is not shared by the UK and US governments. However, that is no guarantee that that is the case.

You will have to decide where you fit personally into this confusing picture. I hope the information provided helps you.

If you know something different or additional to the information posted here, please follow this link and send in your information using the data entry form.
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