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US Visa Waiver rules to change

14 Nov 2008

The current Visa Waiver (where travellers fill in a paper form on arrival) will become defunct on January 12, 2009 when new US government legislation comes into effect.

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 (ESTA), 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 said: “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 added: “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 distinguished 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 was 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 www.esta.cbp.dhs.gov and fill in your details.

Felicity Cousins

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