WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Travelers from England, France, Germany, Japan and about two dozen other "Visa Waiver" countries will be required to register electronically before boarding a plane or boat to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday.
DHS will begin accepting applications via a secure Internet site on August 1, and will require visitors to use the Internet system beginning January 12, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. The move will help U.S. authorities vet foreign visitors, he said.
The requirement does not apply to U.S. citizens traveling overseas.
The announcement is the latest change to the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of 27 countries -- most of them European countries that are strong U.S. allies -- to travel to the U.S. without a visa. Currently, citizens from VWP countries complete a written form providing basic biographical, travel and eligibility information while en route to the U.S. and submit the forms to border officials on arrival.
Under the new program, known as Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, travelers will complete an electronic version of the form before traveling. DHS recommends that travelers fill out the form not less than three days before traveling, and authorizations will be valid for up to two years or until the applicant's passport expires, whichever comes first.
Initially, there will be no fee to apply for travel authorization, although one may be imposed later.
Visitors will still be required to have valid passports, but after January 12, travelers with valid ESTA clearance will not be required to complete the written form.
Chertoff said the system will make it easier for U.S. officials to check travelers against terror watch lists, and will help travelers by allowing them to deal with possible problems before they get to U.S. borders.
Chertoff said ESTA is "a 21st century solution" to the problem of keeping terrorists out of the United States.
Critics, however, say the system does nothing to prevent "clean skin" terrorists -- those like shoe bomber Richard Reid who were not on terror watch lists -- from entering the United States. They say the plan removes the emphasis on face-to-face questioning by U.S. officials as travelers apply for visas or cross U.S. borders.
But Chertoff on Tuesday said the relationships the U.S. has built with the Visa Waiver Program is leading to increased information sharing, making the U.S. more secure. An additional eight countries are working to join the program.
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