Residents of 27 friendly nations who can travel to the United States without a visa will be required to register online with the U.S. government at least 72 hours before departure starting in January...

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WASHINGTON — Residents of 27 friendly nations who can travel to the United States without a visa will be required to register online with the U.S. government at least 72 hours before departure starting in January, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization continues a trend that began after Sept. 11, 2001, of tightened security for residents of countries in the Visa Waiver Program, which includes 22 European nations, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei. Some European officials have chafed at the stepped-up U.S. demands.

The new rule requires travelers to submit information electronically that they now write on paper forms en route to the United States. Travelers who can’t access a U.S. government Web site may register through travel agents or airline Web sites.

Authorization will be valid for multiple entries over two years. Travelers can begin voluntarily registering Aug. 1. People who are rejected may visit a U.S. consulate to apply for a visa.

Online registration will be mandatory for all visa-free travel by Jan. 12.

The United Kingdom, whose citizens have long enjoyed visa-free travel to the United States, indicated it would accept the changes.

“Obviously we understand the need to improve travel security, and we welcome this additional information from the U.S. on when and where they are going to implement [the new measures],” a British Home Office spokeswoman said.

U.S. officials said the program is similar to one in Australia.

U.S. officials said the change will shrink a security loophole. U.S. customs and border authorities already receive electronic passenger-manifest information from airlines 15 minutes after departure on U.S.-bound flights. But screeners will be able to use the added time and information to conduct more thorough checks and keep unwanted persons from boarding planes and ships.

Jacques Barrot, a European Union vice president, asked for more details about U.S. plans, EU officials said. The commission is determining whether the requirement is tantamount to a visa and whether to study imposing a similar requirement on Americans traveling to Europe.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said the effort “contributes to an atmosphere of general distrust” fostered by U.S. security measures.

Mike McConnell, U.S. director of national intelligence, testified last year that al-Qaida was recruiting Europeans because they do not require a visa to enter the United States, comments echoed by CIA and FBI leaders.

Some experts warned that if the system overwhelms consular offices with visa applications or forces a large percentage of travelers with Arabic names to apply for visas, it could create a public-relations disaster.

The National Business Travel Association asked what options Homeland Security would provide for last-minute or uninformed travelers. U.S. and international airlines criticized the department for circumventing normal public notice and comment and questioned the added security of duplicating information they said is already obtained from airlines.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.