Registration for visa-free travelers to the US: A solution in search of a problem

We already know how much of a pain arranging a visa can be. But for travelers to the United States who are not required to obtain a visa– including citizens of most of Western Europe, Australia, and Japan– visiting the US is about to become more of a hassle, as Jeff told us earlier this week.

A new security regulation will require even travelers who don’t need visas to enter the US to register online at least three days before their visit. The rule, which will be announced on Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is aimed at preventing terrorists from “friendly” countries from entering the US. As of January 2009, travelers to the US will be required to provide certain personal information to the DHS before they arrive, and the info will be valid for two years. (More here.)

It’s been, what, almost seven years since 9-11? One might wonder how the US has avoided another attack without such a “necessary” provision already in place. Just dumb luck, I guess. And why is Homeland Security waiting until January to effect this change? Do terrorists vacation between June and December?

The truth, it seems to me, is that this is a solution in search of a problem. Checking the background information of passengers might prevent the dumbest would-be terrorists from boarding US-bound flights, but I’m not sure those are the ones we need to be concerned about. Any remotely sophisticated terrorists, like those of the 9-11 attacks, will be able to find ways around the new regulations. What the new rules actually do, rather than make the US demonstrably safer, is create another hoop for foreign travelers to jump through before they visit (and spend money in) the United States.

To all the American travelers out there: imagine if the countries with which the US is “friendly” treated you like a criminal before you even arrived. What would you say about such a place?