April 25, 2009

Digital IDs make clearing customs easier

By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY -- WASHINGTON — For the first time, U.S. travelers flying overseas may avoid customs lines at a foreign airport by swiping a digital ID card.

Digital IDs make clearing customs easier - USATODAY.com

An agreement Thursday between the Homeland Security Department and the Netherlands allows approved U.S. citizens to speed through customs checks at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

Dutch citizens clearing a Homeland Security background check can do the same arriving at some U.S. airports, including New York's John F. Kennedy International and Los Angeles International.

The ID cards are embedded with an image of the traveler's eye that is used to verify his identity.

Industry groups say the program will encourage travel to the USA by reducing the hassles of clearing customs.

"This is a big breakthrough. It really opens the door for much more," said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes foreign travel to the United States.

U.S. officials are in talks to begin programs with the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia, said John Wagner, who runs the program for Homeland Security.

About 4.5 million U.K. visitors came to the U.S. last year, ranking third behind Canada and Mexico, government figures show. The Netherlands ranked 13th, with 600,000 visitors to the U.S.

"We fully intend to make this a global network," Wagner said.

U.S. citizens must enroll in the Amsterdam airport's trusted-traveler program, which costs $143 a year and requires a background check by Dutch authorities.

Participants get a card containing a digital image of their iris. When arriving from overseas, they will swipe the card at an airport kiosk. They then press their eye against a kiosk camera, which checks that the camera image matches the image on the card.

Dutch citizens must enroll in the U.S. "Global Entry" program, which resembles the Amsterdam program but uses fingerprints to verify identity. Enrollment costs $100 for five years. Kiosks are installed in seven major U.S. airports, with plans to add them in 13 more this year.

National Business Travel Association consultant Stewart Verdery said expansion is essential and overdue. "This sends a good diplomatic message," Verdery said. He said background checks make the program secure.

Posted by staff at April 25, 2009 09:37 AM