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US is offering smaller, cheaper option for travellers

US is offering smaller, cheaper option for travellers

By Sea Holstege 
People who chafe at the cost of a passport or worry about carrying one to the beach at Rocky Point will soon have a cheaper, easier option.

The government is on the cusp of releasing passport cards that fit in a wallet and cost half the price of a new passport. About 350,000 Americans have applied for the new card, the latest step toward ratcheting up border ID security.

The U.S. State Department says it is days away from producing the new documents at its Arkansas facility.

People who apply now can expect a four-week wait for cards after the government mails out ones to earlier applicants.

The State Department expects the number to swell to 4 million by June 1, 2009. That’s when U.S. travelers cannot cross the border without a passport, a new passport card or an equivalent document.

Ultimately, many millions should be in circulation, helping day-trippers and frequent visitors re-entering from Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean. The government issued 18 million regular passports last year, and the number is steadily climbing.

In January, travelers could no longer re-enter the country from Mexico or Canada by verbally declaring their U.S. citizenship. They must carry valid travel and ID documents, but a grace period remains in effect until next summer.

The changes stem from the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, one of a string of post-9/11 security requirements. Gradually, the government has tightened travel ID procedures in an effort to better track who enters and leaves the country.

The State Department is encouraging people to apply early, in part to avoid the kind of rush on documents that happened a year ago when the government required a passport for people flying into the United States from elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

“We are issuing these cards in response to concerns of the public when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was announced,” project manager Derwood Staeben said, noting 200,000 people submitted comments and many complained about the cost and inconvenience of getting passports.

The new cards fit inside a wallet and, for first-time adult applicants, will cost $45, compared with $100 for a first-time traditional passport. For people who hold a passport or apply for one simultaneously, the card will cost an extra $20.

The new cards are becoming available just as the Arizona Legislature shot down a plan to issue comparable state driver’s licenses. Those so-called 3-in-1 licenses would also have been accepted at the border as legitimate, tamper-proof travel documents, as well as for employment verification.

Lawmakers balked at approving the 3-in-1 licenses because of the cost of developing them. But another issue was that the card would feature an embedded radio transmitter chip, which worries privacy advocates. Known as RFID, the technology is controversial because critics fear that data from the chips could unknowingly be lifted by remote readers, in what’s called “skimming.”

Staeben said a skimmer would only get a meaningless ID number from the passport cards. The number allows customs agents to automatically pull up a passport file on a computer from government databases, but skimmers would not have access to the raw data. As an added precaution, travelers can cover their cards in a sleeve that blocks transmissions. That precaution was also proposed for Arizona’s licenses.

RFID chips have been embedded in every passport issued since August 2006. Staeben said security measures, including an embedded metal cage to block out skimmers, were featured in the newer passports to protect privacy and combat skimming.

The State Department did not have data on how many Arizona residents are applying for the new passport cards but said that interest is strongest along in Southwest border states.

Arizona, which has 9 percent of the country’s population, accounted for 14 percent of the conventional passport applications in the first quarter of 2008.