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US postpones imposition of biometric passports

A negative photo of the current Swiss passport (Key/Montage: swissinfo)

The United States has extended the deadline for the switch over to biometric passports by one year until October 26, 2006.

In the meantime the current machine-readable 2003 model Swiss passport will still be issued.

The extension gives Swiss authorities the opportunity to be ready on time as they plan to have the new high-tech passport available from September 2006.

The Federal Police Office said it was informed of the extension on Friday morning although it had not requested a postponement.

Danièle Bersier, a spokeswoman for the Federal Police Office, told swissinfo that everything was planned for the first biometric Swiss passports to be available from September next year.

"Anyone who asks for a passport after that time will have a choice between the two types: the 2003 model which is available now or the more expensive biometric one," Bersier explained.

The new biometric passport, which was supposed to be ready by the end of this year, will contain a digital picture and fingerprints of the holder.

The push to introduce biometric passports came from the US, which wanted to tighten border security following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Visa waiver

As part of the US Visa Waiver Program, citizens of Switzerland and 26 other countries travelling to the US for tourism and general business for up to 90 days do not need a visa.

To continue to take advantage of this waiver after October 26, 2006, Swiss travellers need to have either a new biometric passport or a machine-readable 2003 model passport issued before that date. Alternatively, Swiss citizens can apply for a visa for short visits and transit.

A machine-readable 2003 model passport issued after October 26, 2006, would not be eligible for the US Visa Waiver Program and its owner would have to apply for a visa.

Bersier confirmed that the 2003 model passport issued before the end of next October would remain valid for entry to the US without a visa throughout its ten years of validity.

"We advise all people who travel regularly to the United States to order their new passport as soon as possible, at the latest before the October 2006 deadline."

An adult biometric Swiss passport will cost SFr250 ($197) and will be valid for five years. The currently available 2003 model passport costs SFr120 and is valid for ten years.

In a separate development, the 27th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners adopted a resolution in Montreux on Friday on the use of biometric data in passports, ID cards and travel documents.

The commissioners, from some 40 countries, noted that the widespread use of such data would have a considerable impact on society and should therefore be preceded by a broad and universal debate.

They called for effective safeguards to be built in so as to limit the risks inherent in biometrics.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Biometrics is the science of measuring an individual's physical properties.
Biometric systems recognise features such as a fingerprint, iris patterns, ear shape and vein structure.
A person's biometric data can be compared with the information contained in the passport for verification purposes.

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