Action dedicated to improving national security
The U.S. government announced August 2 that international air passengers would no longer be able to transit through the United States without obtaining a visa. In a press release, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security said the action has been taken as a response to recent intelligence information finding that terrorists might exploit two current traveler-convenience programs to gain entry to the country by circumventing the visa process.
The Transit without Visa Program (TWOV) and the International-to-International (ITI) transit program allowed passengers to change flights at U.S. airports in order to reach a destination in another country. The U.S. government announcement said that the programs will be reinstated when the security measures are developed to prevent abuse of the privilege by those who would do harm to the United States, its citizens and international travelers.
This policy change does not affect citizens of visa waiver countries. They may still enter or transit the United States without a visa. Information on the visa waiver program is available at http://travel.state.gov/vwp.html
The new policy became effective August 2, but certain exceptions are being granted for travelers who are in the midst of their itinerary during this transition period.
The State Department has published answers to frequently asked questions about this policy change. They are available at http://travel.state.gov/twov.faq.html
The following is the text of the announcement:
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Office of the Press Secretary
August 2, 2003
HOMELAND SECURITY AND DEPARTMENT OF STATE
TAKE IMMEDIATE STEPS TO MAKE AIR TRAVEL EVEN SAFER
Special international in-transit programs suspended
Washington, DC -- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State today suspended two programs that allow certain international air passengers to travel through the United States for transit purposes without first obtaining a visa. The programs, known as the Transit Without Visa program (TWOV) and the International-to-International transit program (ITI), have been suspended. The action takes effect at 11:00 a.m., Saturday August 2, 2003. (Note: All times are U.S. EDT). This action does not affect U.S. citizens or citizens from visa waiver countries.
Homeland Security issued instructions to all airlines to no longer allow passengers to utilize these transit programs. Homeland Security agencies are also taking additional steps to increase security at airports and on airplanes that normally transport and process passengers under these programs. These new measures are in addition to significant increases in aviation security implemented since September 11 such as reinforced cockpit doors, deployment of federal air marshals, enhanced federalized baggage and passenger screening and armed Federal Flight Deck Officers piloting some jetliners.
It is the intention of both Departments to reinstate the TWOV and ITI programs as soon as additional security measures can be implemented to safeguard the programs from terrorists who wish to gain access to the U.S. or U.S. airspace without going through the consular screening process. Officials have already begun this process of identifying possible steps that could be taken to further secure the transit programs. Homeland Security and the Department of State are soliciting comments from the public about the action and will reassess the suspension over the next 60 days after reviewing the responses. Current intelligence will also be a factor considered when deciding to re-implement the program.
Recent specific intelligence indicates that terrorist groups have been planning to exploit these transit programs to gain access to the U.S. or U.S. airspace without going through the consular screening process. The steps announced today are designed to augment security against possible terrorist threats and to protect U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who fly into and out of the United States.
"Our number one mission is to protect Americans and American interests from the threat of terrorism and we realize that terrorists aim to exploit our vulnerabilities and freedoms," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. "The steps announced today, while aggressive, are an appropriate response to the threat. We know they will have an impact on international travelers, but we believe they are necessary in order to protect lives and property."
Homeland Security and State will make three exceptions to these actions to accommodate travelers who may be immediately impacted. The three exceptions are:
1) TWOV or ITI passengers in flight at the time the regulation goes into effect will be allowed to continue in transit and depart the U. S. subject to inspection and an evaluation of risk.
2) Travelers who purchased their tickets as TWOV or ITI passengers on or before July 24, 2003, and who are scheduled to depart for transit through the U.S. before 12:01 a.m., Tuesday, August 5, 2003, need not obtain a visa to transit the U.S. For any flights scheduled to depart after 12:01 a.m. August 5 that include a stop in the U.S, however, these travelers must now either obtain a visa or change their travel itinerary to exclude a stop in the U.S.
3) If a person has already traveled through the U.S. as a TWOV or ITI passenger on the first leg of their trip, and uses the return portion of their round trip ticket before 11:00 a.m., August 9, 2003, they will be permitted to make a stop in the U.S. without a visa on the return portion of their trip. They will be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors upon arrival in the United States. If they plan to transit the U.S. after that date and time, however, they must either obtain a visa or change their return itinerary to exclude a stop in the U.S.
The Transit Without Visa program has been in use in the United States since 1952. It applies to passengers who normally would be required to obtain a visa to travel to the United States. Under the TWOV program, passengers arriving in the United States from a foreign country are permitted to travel through the United States to another foreign destination without first obtaining a visa to stop and change planes in the United States. Passengers under the TWOV program go through the full border inspection process upon arrival in the U.S. Under the TWOV program, a passenger may stop at one or two U.S. airports en route to another foreign destination. If on a domestic flight to a second U.S. airport, the airline is responsible for ensuring that the passenger does not illegally enter the United States. Airlines provide contract security escorts and are required to maintain control of the passenger's passport and other travel documents.
The International-to-International transit program also allows passengers arriving from foreign countries to transit through the United States to another foreign destination without first obtaining a visa. Unlike the TWOV program, however, ITI passengers may only transit through one airport, and they may not leave the international transit lounge while connecting planes at that airport.
In 2002, the top five countries from which TWOV passengers arrived in the United States were Brazil, Mexico, Korea, the Philippines, and Peru. The greatest number of TWOV and ITI passengers transited the U.S. through airports in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Dallas and Houston.
Homeland Security agencies involved in this action include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration. They will work closely with airport authorities, airlines and state and local law enforcement to implement this new policy.