Beginning on 23 January 2007, all persons entering the United States by air will be required to show a passport. Even U.S. citizens who left the country prior to 23 January and are returning will require passports. Very few exceptions will be made.
Previously, people traveling between Canada and the U.S., and various other countries in the immediate Western Hemisphere such as Jamaica and Bermuda, could enter and leave the U.S. with other methods of identification.
The Homeland Security Department will officially announce the change on Wednesday.
The department had been expected to institute the passport requirement for air travelers around the beginning of the year. Setting 23 January puts the start date past this holiday season and is intended to cause minimal disruption.
Currently, U.S. citizens returning from other countries in the hemisphere are not required to present passports but must show other proof of citizenship such as driver's licenses or birth certificates.
Visitors from most countries in the hemisphere are required to show passports. However, people from Canada, Bermuda and those from Mexico who enter the U.S. frequently and have special border-crossing cards have been allowed to use other forms of identification, including driver's licenses.
"Right now, there are 8,000 different state and local entities in the U.S. issuing birth certificates and driver's licenses," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. Having to detect forgeries among so many different documents "puts an enormous burden on our Customs and Border inspectors."
In a few cases, other documents still may be used for air entry into the U.S. by some frequent travelers between the U.S. and Canada, members of the American military on official business and some U.S. merchant mariners.
Under a separate program, Homeland Security plans to require all travelers, including Americans, entering the U.S. by land or sea to show a passport or an alternative security identification card starting as early as January 2008.
The Homeland Security Department estimates that about 25% of Americans have a passport.
The September 11 Commission said in its report, "For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons."
The Commission recommended strengthening security of travel documents. A 2004 law passed by Congress mandated the change to require passports as the only acceptable travel document, with few exceptions, but the exact date had been in question.
It is intended that all travelers by sea will have the same requirement by the end of 2007. Eventually, all U.S. border crossing, even by car and foot, are intended to have the same requirement. Finalized plans for comprehensive border crossing have not been finished, but it is expected that by 2010 nearly all border crossings will be documented.