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US announces plans for paperless visa applications

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The US announced this week its plans for a "paperless" U.S. visa application system that will enable foreigners to apply for visas electronically and use digital video technology to conduct remote interviews.

The country will also allow U.S. citizens to use new simplified "passport cards" instead of regular passports when traveling to and from Canada and Mexico after Jan. 1, 2008.

The US government gave assurances that the schemes will not compromise U.S. security by making it easier for terrorists to enter the country. The Bush administration announced last year that a driver's license would no longer be recognized as a secure travel document under Congress' Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, requiring those who enter the United States from Canada or Mexico to carry a passport. The regulation is to take effect at airports on Jan. 1, 2007, and at land crossings on Jan. 1, 2008.

But, fearing massive traffic jams among thousands of people who cross the borders for work or shopping every day, the administration is now proposing a "travel card system" that would apply only at land crossings.

The Canadian Embassy in Washington said a similar system is not being considered in Canada at this time but did not exclude the possibility.

The paperless visa application process, when implemented, will represent "the biggest qualitative change" in U.S. visa policy in about 150 years, a senior State Department official said. Candidates from around the world have been complaining for years about a process that forces them to travel hundreds -- in some cases thousands -- of miles, pay more than $100 and wait in line for hours to apply for visas they may never receive.

The new proposal, to be tested later this year in Britain, will allow applicants who live far from U.S. embassies or consulates to be interviewed via video conference with consular officials.

A senior State Department official said the "biggest technological challenge" of the remote video interviews is collecting fingerprints -- a requirement since 2003.

The official said that it would take time to implement the new ideas -- noting that some of them may not work -- but that the administration is committed to being "creative and transparent about what we are doing."