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Believe it or not, less than 20% of Americans have a passport -- a puzzling concept for most well-traveled Frommer's devotees. If you are one of the 80% considering taking the plunge or your over-used passport needs renewal, then the State Department has news for you.

On March 8, 2005, the State Department (http://travel.state.gov) introduced a new $12 enhanced security fee that is applicable on all US passport applications. The last time there was a hike in the price of a passport was back in 2002, but this new fee comes with some added features that will be included in the specially redesigned document.

The $12 is probably a small price to pay for the cutting edge technology that lets your personal information to be encoded and placed within the passport cover itself. Called a biometric identifier, a chip will be embedded in the passport cover and will contain the same information that appears on the data page, including the bearer's photograph. The high-capacity, contactless chip will transmit data via low-power radio frequency (similar to that used by transponders on toll roads) rather than direct contact with a reader device.

Fees for first-time adult passports and replacement of lost or stolen passports will increase from $85 to $97. Passports for children under 16 will go up to $82 (previously $70), and renewal of adult passports will cost $67 (previously $55). The new surcharge will also cover the cost of sending passports by Priority Mail when required, a security feature that allows better tracking and accountability.

It isn't only Americans who will bear the brunt of these fee increases. All visitors to the United States who require visas, including temporary residents and those on working visas, will incur an increase in visa application fees as well to help the State Department recover the costs for enhanced security features. The Department of Homeland Security's entry-exit biometrics system will store two fingerprint images and a digital photograph of visitors to the United States in databases at overseas consular offices and points of entry nationwide. The new passports, which are being introduced concurrently by the 27 nation members of the International Civil Aviation Organization (i.e. the European Union, Australia, Japan) in 2005 - 2006 will be used as part of a multination test to determine whether the systems developed by different governments are compatible with each other and can be processed effectively by border officials, ideally at all international ports of entry.

Biometrics such as digital, inkless finger-scans and digital photographs enable immigration personnel to determine whether a traveler applying for entry is the same person who was issued the passport or visa. Although US passports will use the face as the primary biometric identifier, other countries have chosen to enhance their biometric capabilities, for example, The Netherlands is also adding fingerprint information to its passports. It is expected that in the near future, the US will introduce legislation to bar entry to the country to any visitor who does not have biometric information within their passport.

The addition of biometrics is a major step in bilateral efforts to prevent the use of lost and stolen passports by terrorists and criminals. These enhancements are but one step in an effort to make passport forgery a thing of the past.

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