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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The western Canadian province of British Columbia is set to start testing the country's first high-tech driver's license, aimed at allaying U.S. security concerns while also allowing spontaneous trips across the border.
The province unveiled new licenses on Monday that contain an electronic microchip that will give border guards access to the driver's citizenship information and serve as an alternative to a passport.
The licenses are initially designed to ease travel between British Columbia and Washington state, which is already taking applications for its own enhanced license project.
The first Canadian licenses are expected to be issued this spring.
The Pacific Coast province and state agreed to develop the licenses after the U.S. federal government said it would require all drivers and adult passengers -- including Americans -- to present a passport when entering the country from either Canada or Mexico.
Critics of the passport requirement, which will take effect by June 2009, say it will hamper routine trade and ignores the fact that border residents often make short and impromptu trips across the line for shopping or to visit friends.
"It's not simply a trading relationship its a social relationship," British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said.
The provincial and state governments are keen to have their license systems in full operation before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which are expected to cause a spike in border crossings.
Supporters of the enhanced licenses, including Canada's federal government, hope to convince the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to accept them in lieu of passports.
Federal Public Safety Minster Stockwell day predicted on Monday that other province will adopt similar licenses if British Columbia is successful.
Vermont, New York and Arizona are also studying Washington state's system.
Applicants in both British Columbia and Washington state must prove their citizenship to get the licenses. Canadians must also agree to allow some protected private information to be shared with U.S. border authorities.
British Columbia will initially select 500 people to test the licenses. The province has a large immigrant population, but the initial test will be limited to citizens who were born there.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing Rob Wilson