WASHINGTON - Nearly all air travelers entering the United States will be required to show passports beginning Jan. 23, including returning Americans and people from Canada and other nations in the Western Hemisphere.
The date was disclosed Tuesday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The Homeland Security Department plans to announce the change today.
The department had been expected to institute the passport requirement for air travelers around the beginning of the year. Setting the date on Jan. 23 pushes the start past the holiday season.
U.S. citizens now 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.
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Visitors from most countries in the hemisphere are required to show passports. However, people from Canada, Bermuda - and those from Mexico who enter the United States 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," Chertoff said. Having to distinguish phony from real in so many different documents "puts an enormous burden on our Customs and Border inspectors," he said.
In a few cases, other documents still might be used for air entry into the United States by some frequent travelers between the United States and Canada, members of the U.S. 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 United States 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 one in four Americans has a passport. Some people have balked at the $97 price tag.
Chertoff said his agency's data revealed that in September 2006, 90 percent of passengers leaving from Canadian airports had passports. The department estimated that 69 percent of U.S. travelers to Canada, 58 percent of U.S. travelers to Mexico, and 75 percent of U.S. travelers to the Caribbean hold passports.
"Could James Bond and Q come up with a fake passport" that could fool inspectors? Chertoff asked, referring to the fictional British spy and his espionage agency's technical genius. Of course, he replied, "Nothing is completely perfect."
Still, he said, that with new technology, it is increasingly difficult to forge passports, and having just one document to scrutinize should make inspection easier for both inspectors and travelers.