Ireland is one of the 27 countries that participate in the US visa waiver programme, which enables citizens of those countries to travel to the US for up to 90 days without a visa for business or tourist purposes. The US Enhanced Border Security Act, enacted after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, requires each country that participates in the visa waiver programme to introduce, or have in place a programme to introduce, biometric passports by 26 October 2004. Otherwise, citizens of these countries will have to obtain a visa from an American Embassy for travel to the US. This, however, will only apply to passports issued on or after 26 October 2004; holders of passports issued before that date will continue to be able to enter the US under the visa waiver programme without a visa, provided their passports are machine-readable, that is, the personal information is printed and not handwritten. All Irish passports issued in Dublin, Cork and London are machine-readable.
Given the numbers of Irish travellers to the US and the importance of our economic and wider relationship with that country, it is highly desirable that Ireland should remain a participant in the visa waiver programme. I am recommending to the Government, therefore, that Ireland should introduce passports containing biometric information subject to the conduct of a feasibility study of the detailed arrangements for implementing this.
My Department is developing a new Irish passport which will be introduced later this year. The new passport will contain a polycarbonate, plastic, datapage which will be capable of incorporating a microchip on which biometric data can be inserted. It will, accordingly, be possible to move relatively quickly to the stage of producing biometric passports if a final decision to this effect is taken by the Government.