Officials said that the new measures, requiring visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed at the border, would mostly affect those from Muslim and Middle Eastern counties.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the checks would apply to those from countries that the United States believes may harbor or encourage terrorists.
The change was prompted by concern about the lack of records on tourists, students and other foreign visitors after the Sept. 11 hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the officials said.
"On September 11, the American definition of national security changed and changed forever," Ashcroft said.
"A band of men entered our country under false pretenses," Ashcroft said, saying their intentions were "murderous acts of war."
It will apply to people who stay more than a month and it is based on an alien registration law put in place in the 1940s during World War II.
"There is no question that there are laws on the books that allow the United States government to protect the American people," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in advance of Ashcroft's announcement.
"And the president knows that we can take action to protect people that is fully in accordance with protecting civil rights and civil liberties."
But the new regulation — which does not require congressional approval — drew immediate criticism from groups representing immigrants.
Judy Golub of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said it could be the first step toward requiring all visitors — and perhaps all citizens — to carry government identification cards.
"We don't need false solutions to real problems and this is what this is," she said.
"The Bush administration is, step by step, isolating Muslim and Arab communities both in the eyes of the government and the American public," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "This latest move needs to be seen in the larger context of all the actions targeted at people of Middle Eastern descent since September 11."
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a policy group, agreed, saying the change would add to an already overburdened process and would fail to help improve security.
Zogby said it was adopted despite concerns from the State Department and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He called it a political initiative designed to send the message the administration was "doing something" about terrorism.
U.S. officials acknowledged there would be complaints the plan amounted to a form of profiling because it targeted mainly visitors from Middle Eastern and Islamic countries. Ashcroft did not specify any particular country.
He said a list would be developed. The only countries certain to be on the list, Ashcroft said, are those already on the State Department's list of terrorist nations, which includes North Korea, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Cuba.
"No country is totally exempt," he said.
Ashcroft said the regulation would help prevent terrorism by permitting the government to more efficiently identify people who pose a threat.
A key feature of the new plan would involve comparing fingerprints and photographs of certain individuals to a database of known terrorists and those with criminal records.
Before announcing the changes, Ashcroft met with House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Sensenbrenner has been a leading critic of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency within the Justice Department that since Sept. 11 has acknowledged gaps in tracking foreigners in the country.
Ashcroft has undertaken a number of initiatives since the Sept. 11 attacks to better track foreign visitors.
Foreigners seeking to live permanently in the United States are photographed and fingerprinted and must provide detailed background information to the government. But the same is not required of most visitors.
Ashcroft is seeking to expand a 1998 rule that requires visitors from Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Iran to register with the government and be fingerprinted and photographed.
The rule could be applied to people from as many as 35 countries under the proposal, a law enforcement source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. However, people from any country could be required to register if something in their background brings them to the attention of U.S. officials, the official said.