Electronic system for travel authorization now available change your travel plans to the united states

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) Web site went live and began accepting applications on August 1, 2008. The travel authorization became mandatory for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers on January 12, 2009.

According to ESTA, all citizens or nationals of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries who plan to travel to the United States for temporary business or pleasure are required an approved ESTA prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea under the VWP. 

The VWP allows foreign nationals from certain countries to be admitted to the United States for a limited amount of time and under limited conditions without obtaining a visa. 

The following countries are currently in the program: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. On November 17, 2008 VWP was expanded to include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Republic of Korea and the Slovak Republic and on December 30, 2008 Malta joined the VWP. 

In general, to qualify for the VW the alien must, among other requirements, intend to enter the United States for 90 days or less, have a passport lawfully issued by a VWP country that is valid for six months beyond the intended visit and be a national of the VWP country that issued the passport. The VWP does not grant the authorization to work in the United States. 

Until ESTA became mandatory, alien entering the United States under the VWP need to present to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer a completed and signed Form I-94W, Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Form. 

ESTA, which is a web based system, changes that process. Travelers will log on tohttps://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ and complete an application online providing the biographical and eligibility information currently required on the paper I-94W form. 

To facilitate the authorization process, the Department of Homeland Security recommends that ESTA applications be submitted no less than 72 hours prior to travel. However, ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel to the United States. Upon successful completion of an ESTA application, the application will be queried against appropriate law enforcement databases. In most cases, ESTA will provide an almost immediate determination of eligibility for travel under the VWP. Possible responses include: Authorization Approved, Authorization Pending, or Travel Not Authorized, or Authorization Pending.

An approved ESTA travel authorization is valid for up to two years or until the traveler's passport expires, whichever comes first. The approval is valid for multiple entries into the U.S., however, it is not a guarantee of admissibility to the United States at a port of entry. ESTA approval only authorizes a traveler to board a carrier for travel to the U.S. under the VWP. In all cases, Customs and Border Patrol officers make admissibility determinations at all U.S. ports of entry. 

By Ellen von Geyso, JD, LLM

*Article published in GACC South newsletter, summer 2008 and GABC newsletter, summer 2008. Updated February 2009.