Changes To Visa Waiver Program – DHS Announces Pre-Travel Authorization Program for U.S.-Bound Travelers from Visa Waiver Countries

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on June 3, 2008 the Interim Final Rule for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a new online system that is part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and is required by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.

“Rather than relying on paper-based procedures, this system will leverage 21st century electronic means to obtain basic information about who is traveling to the U.S. without a visa,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Once ESTA is mandatory, all nationals or citizens of VWP countries who plan to travel to the United States under the VWP will need to receive an electronic travel authorization prior to boarding a U.S.-bound airplane or cruise ship. The requirement will go into effect January 2009.

Currently, citizens of VWP countries complete a written I-94W form providing basic biographical, travel, and eligibility information while en-route to the U.S. With ESTA, VWP travelers will provide this information online prior to departure for the U.S.

ESTA will determine if an individual is eligible for VWP travel, and if such travel poses any law enforcement or security risks. ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel, and once approved, will be valid for multiple entries for up to two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first. DHS recommends ESTA applications be submitted as soon as an applicant begins planning U.S.-bound travel, and not less than 72 hours prior to travel.

On Aug. 1, 2008, the department will begin to accept voluntary applications through the ESTA Web site (At the time of writing this entry, the ESTA website was still under construction). More information on ESTA can be found at the CBP Website. .Until ESTA is mandatory for all VWP travelers next year, however, ESTA applicants will also still need to complete an I-94W form en-route. The Secretary of Homeland Security is anticipated to publish a notice in the Federal Register by mid-November 2008, announcing implementation of mandatory ESTA requirements on Jan. 12, 2009.
For DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff’s June 3, 2008 remarks on ESTA please visit the DHS website.