U.S. Government To Introduce Exit Clearance At Airports And Suspend Visa Renewal By Mail Without Interview

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The new U.S. Government has prepared an Executive Order seeking the implementation of a Biometric Exit Clearance when leaving the United States and Restriction in the U.S. Visa Application Process.

Such airport exit procedure would require remodeling airport terminals and in the process of running the program add substantial wait times to the departure.

Every time a country has a new administration it seeks to implement their own ideas in regards to various legislation and promises they made during the election cycle, though whatever can be practically done with these ideas remains to be seen and often takes time.

It’s no secret that in case of the new U.S. Administration these visions have focused heavily on immigration and border security and now a process is underway that will affect not only visitors to the United States but also it’s own citizens as biometric exit procedure would require every passenger to clear the facility.

Since the latest Executive Order has been made public which includes sections about Visa Issuance and Border Crossing Security numerous reports have reported falsely about the actual reach of this order with some even suggesting that the U.S. has ended the Visa Waiver Program which is NOT the case.

To get an impression what people are talking about you can see the full document here.

Download (PDF, 2.28MB)

What drew attention in this document are two points that will an affect on many travelers, namely:

  • Expedited Completion of the Biometric Entry-Exit Tracking System
  • Immediate Suspension of the Visa Interview Waiver Program -> NOT the Visa Waiver Program

Here the specific sections of the document related to that:

To make sure it’s clear what we’re talking about here,the Visa Interview Waiver Program is a program that allows current visa holders of eligible countries to RENEW their visa by mail without having to go through an interview again as they already completed one previously when receiving their initial visa.

Here is the link to the process and eligibility requirement for the Visa Interview Waiver in the United Kingdom.

This is NOT the Visa Waiver Program which currently allows nationals of 38 countries to visit the U.S. visa free after applying only for ESTA (Electronic Travel Authorization) in a reciprocal manner, meaning that U.S. citizens can visit these countries visa free as well.

It has been widely and falsely reported in many media outlets that the Visa Waiver Program would be ended with this Executive Order. This is absolutely not the case and potential visitors can breathe again: You will still be able to visit the United States without a visa!

As far as the Biometric Entry-Exit Tracking System is concerned, this is pretty much the second piece of what is already in place today when you enter the U.S. and have your fingerprint and picture taken (at least as a foreign visitor). Having an immigration counter upon exiting the country would basically just reconcile the information with what you gave when you came in.

This measure is nothing out of the ordinary and in fact most countries already have an exit immigration in place since forever, be it with biometric data collection or without. Most countries will exit-stamp your passport as a foreign visitor and sometimes even as a citizen. Of course this requires airport infrastructure to be set up in a way that the international departure area is sealed off and you can’t exit the terminal without going through immigration again.

Airports in the U.S. (and Canada for that matter) are currently more or less open zones as far as departures go and many of the terminals are so old that it would prove to be a real challenge to install such facilities as even international flights are often departing right next to domestic flights. The passenger data is being submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for matching and to register the passenger as ‘Departed’.

You might remember some years ago (maybe 5 years) that each international arrival received a small paper slip that was stamped and had to be surrendered to the airline upon departure which pretty much did the same thing the computers are doing today automatically. The downside of both systems is that it’s easy for mismatches to occur. For example you can download your own history of entries and exits here on the Customs and Border Protection website. Much to my dismay I found that some of my records are incorrect and the last time I asked an immigration officer about that he mentioned that some of it is due to the old paper slips not having been submitted correctly by the airlines or the airlines submitting incorrect data sets which shouldn’t happen but we all know how IT works sometimes.

You can expect that sooner or later these exit control counters will show up at U.S. airports and it will add substantial wait time for passengers. Not as much as upon arrival as there won’t be any interviews but it will still take some time. Naturally, U.S. citizens will be subjected to exit control as well although likely without having their biometrics collected. Currently you’re able to leave the U.S. freely as long as you’re not on the no fly list. Having exit controls would for also allow authorities to control if criminals with U.S. passports are leaving the country, if there are open warrants etc. Probably a good and long overdue idea considering the U.S. are so sensitive about who comes in but less diligent about who goes out.

Conclusion

Both proposals come with certain challenges for each department involved and also for the individuals affected. The Visa Interview Waiver Program was not only designed to make the application process easier but also to help U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad and ease the amount of applicants to be processed in person, just to answer the same questions they have answered before in a satisfactory manner. Every embassy tries to keep the flow of individuals coming in at a minimum and be it just for security reasons. This measure makes it more difficult for all parties involved.

I wish the distinction between the Interview Waiver and Visa Waiver would be reported correctly though without scaring people who have travel planned.The plan regarding Immigration Exit Procedures and reconciling biometric data will take longer to be implemented. It’s not just done with racking up a few counters. As outlined the infrastructure of U.S. airports is often outdated (something even the President himself has repeatedly complained about) and this measure will require sealed off departure areas exclusively for international departures.

Some airports that don’t have an international Terminal (which are most of the U.S. Airports) will have a big problem with that. It costs money and likely requires new buildings which in turn takes time. Not an easy project but that being said I think it’s overdue that it’s being checked who is leaving the country like every other nation does it. Canada should take note of this as well.

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