Starting in January, foreign visitors traveling to the U.S. are being photographed and fingerprinted at 115 domestic airports and 14 seaports as part of the US-VISIT (US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program, launched by the Department of Homeland Security.

Foreign visitors from countries outside the Visa Waiver Program (see below) will have both index fingers scanned and a digital photo taken to verify their identify at the port of entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers, who already review visas and passports and ask questions about the visitor's stay in the United States. The enhancements are expected to add about 15 seconds to the process, according to government officials. Most visitors who require a visa will eventually need to verify their departure when the program is fully operational, and a new checkout procedure will scan travel documents and capture fingerprints on the same inkless device.

The US-VISIT program does not apply to 28 countries, including Canada and the 27 nations that are part of the U.S.'s Visa Waiver Program. The VWP countries are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Business and leisure travelers have approximately nine months to obtain a machine-readable passport to enter the country without a visa. If not, a visa is required.

Security expert Richard Werth, CPP, president of Event & Meeting Security Services, wonders why a similar system wasn't implemented sooner, considering an entry-and-exit-tracking program was approved by Congress in 1996. That said, Werth has concerns about the enhanced US-VISIT program. Primarily, he questions whether it will really be effective in combating terrorism and stopping unauthorized access to the U.S., allow appropriate privacy to be maintained, effectively operate and not delay affected travelers or the airlines, and be able to be competently managed for the long term.

With regard to the meetings industry, US-VISIT could create challenges for corporations or associations with employees or members traveling from places other than the 28 visa waiver countries, adds Werth. He wonders if it will cause delays at international airports, and missed flight connections or meetings. “Will it reduce international attendance levels at corporate and association events?” he asks.

Thomas Steinmetz, publisher of eTurbo News, a travel trade e-newsletter, says the US-VISIT program has received a mostly negative reaction from overseas travel groups, according to a reader survey. As a result, he believes that international groups will be more hesitant to hold meetings in the U.S. and will instead opt for events in Europe or other international destinations.