US visa waiver changes

13 Nov 2008 by Mark Caswell

looks at the forthcoming introduction of ESTA,
the Electronic
System for Travel Authorisation, and what it means for US-bound travellers.

New US
government legislation means that on January 12, 2009, the current Visa Waiver
Program (where travellers fill in a paper form on arrival) becomes defunct.

From this date it will be mandatory for all travellers from all Visa
Waiver countries to have applied online for an Electronic System for Travel
Authorisation, prior to travel to the US. The concept is not new, as Australia has
been running a similar system for some time.

Paul Morris, executive director of admissibility and passenger
programs, US customs and border protection, said: “ESTA was designed to improve
Visa Waiver security as we will have access to a number of sources of
information on arrival. For the traveller, it basically makes the green waiver
form go away.”

Travellers can apply for an ESTA at any time prior to travel to the US and, once
the application has been accepted (in most cases applicants receive an instant decision with the new online process), it will be valid for two years, or until
your passport expires. The ESTA website is already live for applications and,
if you already hold a visa for the US, then you won’t need to apply for an ESTA
until it expires.

Morris says: “Because we have the information in advance, it gives us
an opportunity to determine if you are going to have a problem on arrival. The
alternative is to get all the way to the US and then be turned away. If ESTA
is denied on application then you will be referred to the US Embassy to apply
for a visa.”

Morris adds: “Business travellers are typically not going to have
issues – ESTA means that you only have to fill out a form once every two years
and it will determine whether you will have any problems.”

What about personal information? ESTA information is held on a database
(much like the UK’s
IRIS information) and can be shared with international bodies should suspicion
about a traveller arise.

Unlike IRIS, which Morris distinguishes as a trusted traveller
programme, ESTA applicants will be known as registered travellers which means
travellers holding a valid ESTA can still be refused entry to the country at
border control.

Morris is also keen to clear up some of the myths about US immigration
being unfriendly. “We deal with one million people a day across our borders,
and we have customer service officers and welcome videos in place now which
should help fix some of the damage, which was largely exaggerated. We should
not focus on the negative. We want people to come to the US.”

At the moment, an ESTA application is free and the website is receiving
around 4,000 applicants a day, but Morris says: “The law stated that we could
charge a fee but we decided not to charge anything for the initial push,
although this might change in the future.”

To apply, visit and fill in your details.

Report by Felicity Cousins

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