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Passengers wait in line at U.S. Customs to board their flights at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Dec. 27, 2009.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Millions of visitors to Canada would be charged a new fee under a proposed electronic security screening plan.

The federal government is soliciting public comment on the plan to introduce online travel applications as part of the sweeping perimeter security pact with the United States.

Foreign nationals who currently do not need a visa to visit Canada – including people from Britain, France and many other countries – would have to successfully apply for an electronic travel authorization before arriving by air.

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U.S. citizens would be exempted from the new requirement.

Records released under the Access to Information Act say Canada expects approximately 3.5 million electronic travel authorization applications annually beginning in April, 2015.

It would align Canada's approach to screening visa-exempt foreign visitors with that of the United States, which already has a similar electronic system in place. The idea is to identify possible security threats before they reach North America.

Visitors would apply through the Citizenship and Immigration website by entering biographic details, passport and background information – the kind of data now requested by officers at Canadian entry ports or in a visa application, says a recently published notice requesting feedback on the initiative.

An electronic system would verify the information against immigration and enforcement databases and conduct a risk assessment of the applicant.

"It is expected that the vast majority of applications would be approved by the electronic system within minutes of applying," the published notice says. "It is also expected that [affected] travellers may experience faster processing when they arrive in Canada as they have already been pre-screened."

Those not approved by the electronic system would be referred to an officer for further examination and a decision.

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The government plans to charge a "cost recovery" fee – how much isn't specified, but it would be a "minimal amount," the notice says. Approved applications would be valid for multiple entries to Canada over a period of up to five years.

"We're never in favour of new traveller taxes," said David Goldstein, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.

However, he applauded the federal effort to catch up to other countries by using technology to modernize the application system for foreign visitors.

If the electronic travel authorization program is successful, Canada could open it to visitors from countries such as Mexico – who now must shell out money for a full-fledged visa, a more onerous hurdle that has hurt tourism, Goldstein suggested.

The privacy commissioner's office has expressed concern about the program's "lack of transparency," citing questions as to the information being collected and how it will be used – particularly given that it will be kept for up to 15 years.

"To a large degree, these matters have been shaped behind closed doors, most notably through arrangements with the U.S. rather than through open and public debate," the office said in a brief last year.

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Citizenship and Immigration is accepting feedback on the plan until mid-January.

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