Foreign visitors to the U.S. will soon start to hear about a new policy if they come from a “visa waiver” country. The “visa waiver” program allows travelers from visa waiver countries, including most of Western Europe, to come to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa.
Starting January 12, 2009, travelers from 27 countries that participate in the visa waiver program will have to provide the U.S. with basic identification information at least three days before their arrival. This will be done via internet. The on-line registration will be valid for 2 years unless the traveler’s passport expires sooner. The new system is called Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
ESTA was designed to increase security screening of visa waiver travelers without the delays of a full security screening normally done on foreigners who must enter with a proper visa.
On Aug. 1, 2008, the government will begin to accept voluntary applications through the Web site at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov
One potential problem with the ESTA program is that it could create delays or backlogs for foreigners who need a visa to enter the U.S. The Government Accounting Office recently issued a report estimating the 1% to 5% of travelers seeking ESTA pre-screening might be rejected. These travelers would then have to apply for a visa to enter the U.S. This could significantly increase the number of people seeking visas at U.S. embassies abroad. The government has not indicated that it plans to increase staff to deal with the extra workload.
UPDATE: On July 24, 2008, USCBP provided the public with a sneak preview of the new ESTA web tool. You can download this at the following site: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/id_visa/esta/esta_web_tool.xml