The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is an online system for pre-screening Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers prior to their departure for the United States. The new process is required by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. Once ESTA is mandatory, VWP travelers will require an approval under ESTA prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea to the United States.
The purpose of the ESTA program is to determine whether a traveler to the United States poses a law enforcement or security risk by entering under VWP. The information collected by the ESTA system will be checked against law enforcement databases, lost and stolen passport databases and appropriate watch lists. In most cases, ESTA will provide an almost immediate determination of eligibility for travel under the VWP. Possible responses include: Authorization Approved, Travel Not Authorized, or Authorization Pending. To apply for authorization to travel to the United States under the VWP, travelers will log on to the ESTA web-based system (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov ) and complete an application online providing the biographical and eligibility information currently required on the paper I-94W form. Once it is fully adopted, the ESTA system will replace the I-94W entirely.
The ESTA system is now available to VWP travelers on a voluntary basis and will be mandatory for travel beginning on January 12, 2009. ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel to the United States. VWP travelers are encouraged to apply for ESTA authorization as soon as they begin to plan a trip to the United States and no later than 72 hours before travel. However, CBP expects that it will be able to accommodate last minute emergency travelers. If applicants' destination addresses or itineraries change after their authorization has been approved, they should update that information through the ESTA website prior to travel.
An approved ESTA travel authorization is valid for up to two years or until the traveler's passport expires, whichever comes first. Also, the ESTA authorization is valid for multiple entries into the U.S. However, ESTA approval does not guarantee admission 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, CBP officers make admissibility determinations at the port of entry
VWP travelers must obtain a new travel authorization under ESTA in advance of travel to the United States if any of the following occur:
- The traveler is issued a new passport;
- The traveler changes his or her name;
- The traveler changes his or her gender;
- The traveler changes his or her country of citizenship; or
- The circumstances underlying the traveler's previous responses to any of the ESTA application questions requiring a "yes" or "no" response (eligibility questions) have changed.
ESTA applicants who are denied authorization to travel to the United States under the VWP will be required to apply for a visa to travel to the United States. This process is similar to the current practice, in which VWP travelers who arrive at a United States port of entry and are determined by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to be ineligible for admission under the VWP may be returned to their country of origin to apply for a visa to enter the United States. One of the purposes of ESTA is to inform travelers in advance of the need for a visa.