Foreign nationals planning to travel to the United States for short-term visits for business or tourism under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) must register as soon as possible for travel clearance through the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Beginning January 12, 2009, VWP travelers will be required to register and get ESTA clearance before boarding a carrier bound for the United States. Travelers should submit their applications well in advance of travel, and no later than 72 hours before departing for the United States.
Currently, only travelers who are nationals of eight new VWP member countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Slovak Republic and South Korea – are required to register in ESTA. However, beginning January 12, the ESTA requirement will be extended to the 27 pre-expansion members of the VWP as well. These countries are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
To register, the traveler submits an online application at the dedicated ESTA website, located at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/. The application asks for the traveler’s biographic and passport information, as well as information about his or her basic eligibility to use the VWP, such as previous visa denials, prior arrests and convictions, and presence of certain diseases. The application also requests the traveler’s U.S. destination, flight information and other travel details, but this information is not required.
Once a traveler submits the ESTA application, it will be reviewed against appropriate national security and law enforcement databases. According to DHS, most applications are decided in a short period of time, but delays are possible, especially as the January 12 full implementation date approaches.
If approved, an ESTA travel authorization will remain valid for up to two years or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever occurs first. The authorization may be used for multiple trips to the United States during the validity period. Travelers do not need to re-register in ESTA unless their initial authorization expires or they obtain a new passport. Note that ESTA registration does not guarantee that a foreign national will be admitted to the United States; Visa Waiver Program travelers remain subject to inspection upon arrival and may be denied entry at the discretion of U.S. border officials.
If the ESTA application is denied or the traveler does not apply for ESTA clearance, a B-1/B-2 visa issued by a U.S. consulate is required for short-term business or tourism visits to the United States.
Visa Waiver Program Passport Requirements
In addition to obtaining an ESTA clearance, a Visa Waiver traveler must ensure that his or her passport complies with program requirements. Passport requirements differ based on the traveler’s country of citizenship and the date the passport was issued.
If the traveler’s passport was issued on or after October 26, 2006 or was issued by one of the eight new VWP member countries, it must be an “e-Passport.” An e-Passport is similar to a traditional passport, except that it contains a small, integrated computer chip embedded in the back cover. The chip stores the traveler’s biographic information, a digital image of the passport photograph, a unique chip identification number and a digital signature to protect the stored data from tampering.
If the passport was issued between October 26, 2005 and October 25, 2006, the passport must contain a digital photograph of the traveler and be machine-readable. A machine-readable passport contains two lines of text (including letters, numbers and chevrons) at the bottom of the passport’s biographic page. When scanned through a passport reader, the machine-readable text electronically communicates the biographic information contained in the passport.
If the passport was issued before October 26, 2005, it must be machine-readable in order for the foreign national to be eligible for Visa Waiver Program travel.
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