Effective Monday, travelers visiting the United States from 35 Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries must be approved for travel electronically prior to boarding a carrier to the United States via the country's new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced this week. Initially launched in August 2008, the Web-based system requires international travelers to pre-register online for travel authorization in order to ascertain whether or not they pose a security risk.
"We have been collecting information from visa waiver travelers for decades, and establishing a program to get that same information in advance is one enhancement that allowed us to extend the valuable benefit of visa-free travel to eight new countries in 2008," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. "In addition to building business and cultural ties with our partners overseas, this is a commonsense step into the 21st century that will improve our efficiency in screening and welcoming international travelers at our ports of entry."
To date, DHS has received more than 1.2 million ESTA applications, and more than 99.6 percent of them have been approved, most within seconds.
The U.S. Travel Association, formerly the Travel Industry Association, released a statement in support of ESTA on Monday, but has expressed concern over the speed at which the new mandatory program was implemented.
"America's travel community supports the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) for its potential to improve security and increase convenience for travelers from visa waiver countries," said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. "However, we are concerned that many of those who must comply with ESTA are not aware of it, do not fully understand what it is or may be turned away at airports for non-compliance if the new requirements are fully enforced."
Although travelers without an approved ESTA may be denied boarding or admission into the United States, DHS has promised that it "will take a reasonable approach to travelers who have not obtained an approved travel authorization via ESTA, and will continue an aggressive advertising and outreach campaign throughout 2009."
According to Dow, who supports such advertising and outreach, ESTA needs a well-funded communications campaign, as well as alternatives for travelers and travel agents who do not have Internet access, and for those who have not pre-registered for travel authorization in advance of their trip.
"Two-thirds of overseas visitors to the United States came from countries being affected by the new ESTA rules," Dow said. "At a time when our economy is struggling, we cannot afford to deter legitimate travel to our country by fueling negative perceptions that it is simply too complicated and difficult to travel to the United States for business or pleasure."
For more information about VWP, visit www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/id_visa/business_pleasure/vwp
. Or, for more information about ESTA, visit www.cbp.gov/esta