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Focus: The new ESTA charge

27 Aug 2010 by BusinessTraveller

On September 8, the US government will put into force new legislation which requires all ESTA applicants pay $14, a mandatory requirement for inbound travel under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP).

Rumours of a forthcoming fee have been circulated for almost a year (see forum), but the official announcement earlier this month (see online news August 13) has reignited the debate over the virtues and criticisms of the plan.

On the one hand, much of the money generated will go into both improving ESTA and encouraging foreign tourism from “primary markets” as mandated by the Travel Promotion Act (TPA), passed by the US Senate in February under the auspices of the Barack administration and effective until 2014.

But critics of the plan, including dissenting voices from Brussels, accuse the US of moving to a visa-type model that specifically targets travellers from the 36 countries currently eligible for travel under VWP, and questioned the logic of imposing a travel fee in order to encourage tourism.

Stewart Gough, commercial specialist for the US embassy in London, said $100 million of the money generated by ESTA would be channelled into promoting travel to the US, by the time TPA is “sunrised” and put up for review. He identified the UK as a primary market, citing the 26 per cent of all ESTA applications originating from the UK alone, since it was first implemented in 2008.

“The money from ESTA will go towards encouraging global tourism, but the UK, a primary market for the US, is going to receive a healthy proportion of these funds,” Gough said.

When asked how these funds would be manifested as real-world initiatives, Gough said it was “too early to say” as the new Travel Advisory Board (charged with controlling the money) was still to be decided upon.

UK-based travel association ABTA estimates that UK visitors to the US will contribute $56 million a year “at a time when consumer budgets are under pressure and the pound has suffered from an unfavourable exchange rate against the dollar.”

Luke Pollard, ABTA’s head of public affairs, said: “We fully support the US Government’s wish to encourage people to visit their country. However charging visitors $14 each to fund this drive seems a rather odd way of doing so.”

TPA stipulates that all ESTA applications carry a minimum $10 fee, much of which will be channelled into a fund controlled by the Board. The remaining $4 will go towards administration costs. But what isn’t commonly known is that every $10 will be matched by the US Government, putting the total projected funds available to the Board at $200 million by 2014.

Charles Bartoldus, the US department of homeland security’s attaché to the UK, said the government’s pledge to match the money would address concerns that ESTA could be used to fund tourism efforts from non-ESTA markets also identified as “primary” such as Canada.

As for the additional $4 not required under TPA, Bartoldus said administration costs had been “carefully scrutinised”. He added that he had feared it would be more.

For more information and to apply visit https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/.

For a guide to ESTA and whether or not you need one, visit sister publication Seatplans.com.

Andrew Gough

ESTA facts

  • ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, and is a mandatory requirement of the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP)
  • VWP is only for stays of no more than 90 days. Any longer and you’ll need a visa
  • An ESTA application can be made without firm travel plans, so it’s advisable to do so before September 8 to avoid the charge
  • A destination address and flight details are not required as part of the application. Flight details are passed to the Department of Homeland security by the airlines
  • ESTA applicants are screened against TSA and US customs no-fly lists, as well as international police databases
  • Applicant details are stored by the US for three years, even though the ESTA is only valid for two
  • An ESTA need only be updated if the applicant changes their name (and passport)
  • Current ESTA holders must apply for a new one if hoping to extend it for a further two years before the Sep 8 cut-off. Simply updating a few details will not do
  • If an ESTA application is denied, the $4 admin fee will still be charged, but not the $10
  • Unsuccessful applicants must make an appointment to see a consular officer at a US embassy
  • A print-out of the ESTA authorisation is not required before travel but is advised
  • All major UK airports serving the US have special ESTA-connected terminals for last-minute applications
  • Credit or debit card is the only approved method of payment
  • The US Government strongly advises travellers to apply to websites bearing the .gov web addresses, rather than go to third-party sites offering ESTA services

ESTA figures

  • There have been 23 million ESTA applications since 2008
  • Six million of these were from the UK, representing 26 per cent
  • The US Government estimates between four and 4.5 million travellers from the UK every year (including both VWP traveller and those holding some form of visa)
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