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ESTA Articles

ESTA Questionnaire for Visa Waiver Program Travelers Expanded

Business or pleasure travelers to the United States from a number of visa waiver program (VWP) are already familiar with the requirements of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and specifically that the ESTA questionnaire must be completed, paid for and approved before visa waiver program travel to the U.S.      On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency announced that it is expanding the ESTA questionnaire to require additional information from each VWP traveler’s other names/aliases, parents’ names, national ID numbers, contact and employment information and city of birth.

About the Electronic System for Travel Authorization

ESTA is an electronic travel authorization that all citizens of VWP countries must obtain prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (WVP). ESTA has been mandatory since Jan. 12, 2009 for all nationals of VWP countries traveling to the U.S under the VWP. The requirement does not affect U.S. citizens returning from overseas or citizens of VWP countries traveling on a valid U.S. visa.

ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel, and once approved, generally will be valid for up to two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first. Authorizations are valid for multiple entries into the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security recommends that ESTA applications be submitted as soon as an applicant begins making travel plans.

VWP travelers are required to log onto the ESTA Web site and complete an online application.

What New Additional Information Does ESTA Require?

The additional information required as of November 3, 2014 for each ESTA submission is:

  • Other Names or Aliases
  • Other Country of Citizenship.  If yes, passport number on additional citizenship passport
  • City of Birth
  • Home Address
  • Parents’ Names
  • Email Address
  • Telephone Number
  • National Identification Number
  • Current Job Title
  • Current or Previous Employer Name, Address, Telephone Number
  • Emergency Point of Contact Name, Telephone Number, Email Address
  • US Point of Contact Name, Address, Telephone Number

CBP’s Justification for Requiring Additional Information

CBP cites increased security concerns and CBP’s goal to be able to do better background checking to all VWP travelers to the US by requiring the new information.  According to CBP, the new information would allow the government to better track and identify VWP country travelers to the US who may pose threat to US national security.

When a person submits an ESTA application, CBP examines the application by screening the applicant’s data through ATS (to screen for terrorists or threats to aviation and border security) and TECS (for matches to persons identified to be of law enforcement interest). The additional data elements will help resolve potentially inconclusive matches by providing additional data to confirm an applicant’s identity. Inconclusive matches ultimately result in a denial of the ESTA application, which results in an applicant being directed to a U.S. embassy or consulate to apply for a visa.

ESTA Process Should Generally Remain Unchanged

Other than the additional information required by each VWP traveler submitting ESTA application, the process should remain unchanged and it should not, according to CBP, add additional processing times.     Cases which are flagged by ESTA for additional review will indicate to the VWP traveler that he or she must apply for a visa at a US Consulate abroad.   As a result, early planning and ESTA submission, especially with the new additional fields, is recommended.

Conclusion

We are hopeful that the rollout of the additional ESTA required information would not create unintended consequences such as ESTA processing delays.   There have not been major issues reported over the first couple of days since the rollout of this enhanced form but we encourage our readers and clients to reach out to us if they experience ESTA issues or if we can be of any assistance.

We will continue to monitor developments on this topic and provide updates.    Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of any assistance or answer any questions.  We also invite you to subscribe to our free weekly immigration newsletter to receive timely updates on this and related topics.

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Taiwan to be Designated a Visa Waiver Program Country

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secreatary Napolitano has just announced that DHS has designated Taiwan as a Visa Waiver Program (VWP).   As a result, Taiwan passport holders will be able to travel visa-free to the United States starting on November 1, 2012.

The VWP will enable citizens of Taiwan to travel to the United States, beginning on November 1, 2012, for 90 days or less for tourism or business purposes without a visa, provided they have an e-passport and an approved authorization via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) (about ESTA; about the ESTA fee).

Currently, 36 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program. The U.S. Congress authorized DHS in August 2007 to reform the VWP and strengthen the security arrangements required of existing participant countries, as well as to expand the opportunity for aspiring countries to join the program. This legislation also mandates certain improvements to the VWP for all participating countries, such as the requirement that travelers first obtain an online authorization to travel under the recently established ESTA, a web-based system that determines the preliminary eligibility of visitors to travel under the VWP prior to boarding a carrier to the United States.

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New ESTA Fee Goes Into Effect September 8, 2010 for Visa Waiver Program Travelers

We wish to remind our readers and clients that a new fee goes into effect starting on September 8, 2010 for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) registration.  ESTA is a required pre-travel registration for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers to the U.S.

About the Fee

The fee will be in the amount of $14.00 and will be required to be paid via credit card (MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover) at the time of completion of the ESTA pre-travel registration.  An ESTA registration is valid for up to two years so the fee will not need to be paid for subsequent VWP travels within this two-year period before a new ESTA registration (and fee) will be required.

The fee was mandated by the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 which mandates that the ESTA funds will be partnered with private funds for the purpose of U.S. travel promotion.

Fee Becomes Effective September 8, 2010

All ESTA registrations submitted on or after September 8, 2010 will require the payment of the new fee.   VWP travelers who plan to visit the U.S. in the near future may want to submit their ESTA registration in advance of this date.

The mandatory nature of the fee and the fact that it can only be paid via certain credit cards through the ESTA website has caused some concerns.  Although many Visa Waiver Countries travelers have access to credit cards at their disposal, the credit card payment requirement may deter or inconvenience some VWP travelers during their ESTA registration process.   As of now, there are no other alternative methods for paying the fee.

Visa Waiver Countries

As a reminder, the Visa Waiver Countries are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

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Visa Waiver Passport Requirements

With the Visa Waiver Program’s (VWP) recent expansion and the upcoming mandatory use of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) after January 12, 2009, we wanted to review the passport requirements for visa-free travel to the U.S. under VWP.

Passports Issued on or After October 26, 2006.  Any passport issued by a VWP country on or after October 26, 2006, must be an e-Passport which has an integrated computer chip capable of storing biographic information from the passport’s information page as well as certain biometric information.

Passports Issued between October 26, 2005 and October 25, 2006.  Older passports, issued between October 26, 2005, and October 25, 2006, can still travel to the U.S. without a visa, providing your passport has a digital photograph printed on the data page.

Passports Issued before October 26, 2005.  Passports issued before October 26, 2005, can still travel to the U.S. without a visa under VWP if the passport has a machine-readable zone.

Visa Required for All Other Passports.  If the VWP passport does not have any of the requirements described above, the VWP country national would have to obtain a U.S. visa in order to enter the U.S.

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Visa Waiver Program Admits Seven New Countries

President Bush just announced that the Department of Homeland Security has notified Congress that the administration intends to admit seven new countries into the Visa Waiver Program.  The new countries are Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea. The exact date of the visa waiver program eligibility for these countries is expected to be announced shortly.

About the Visa Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is a program of the United States of America which allows citizens of specific countries to travel to the US for tourism or business for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.

To be eligible for a visa waiver under the VWP, the traveller seeking admission to the U.S. must be a citizen of a country that has been designated by the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, as a “program country”. Permanent residents of designated countries do not qualify unless they hold a citizenship of another designated country. The criteria for designation as program countries are specified in Section 217 (c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (Title 8 U.S.C. §1187). The criteria stress passport security and a very low nonimmigrant visa refusal rate: not more than 3% as specified in Section 217 (c)(2)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as well as ongoing compliance with the immigration law of the United States.

The full list of VWP countries, taking into effect the new seven countries is as follows:

  • Europe: Andorra, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France (including French overseas territories), Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom;
  • Asia: Brunei, Japan, Singapore and South Korea; and
  • Oceania: Australia and New Zealand.

As a reminder, citizens of all VWP countries traveling must register using the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Registration is optional until January 12, 2009, when it becomes mandatory and a VWP traveler may be denied entry in the U.S. under the VWP if he/she has not registered using ESTA.

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GAO Analyzes the Visa Waiver Program

The Government Accountability Office has released its report on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and its implementation and operation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The report seeks to assess the operation of the program and to analyze DHS’s efforts to expand it.  The GAO report found, among other things that although the government is trying to expand the VWP aggressively by discussing it with a number of countries who are hopeful to join it, there are a number of deficiencies which have created confusion among U.S. government officials who negotiate with candidate countries and has set unreasonable expectations among the countries themselves.

Membership in VWP is granted to countries which have between 3 and 10 percent visa refusal rates and which have 97 percent return rate, meaning that 97 percent of the nationals of a particular country who enter the United States must return to the home country.  In order to allow a country to join VWP, DHS must be able to certify that a particular country has 97 percent return rate,.  However, DHS is unable to properly account for those who remain in the U.S. beyond their authorized period of stay.

In addition, for DHS to to maintain its authority to admit certain countries into the program, it must incorporate biometric indicators (such as fingerprints) into the air exit system by July 1, 2009. However, DHS is unlikely to meet this timeline due to several unresolved issues. In addition, DHS does not fully consider countries’ overstay rates when assessing illegal immigration risks in the Visa Waiver Program.

The GAO report goes into great detail in outlining DHS’s performance under the VWP.  It is a helpful read for anyone who is interested or affected by the Visa Waiver Program or the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

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Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) Goes Live

We have written previously on several occasions about the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) which is now live and operational.  Direct link.

The new system opened on August 1 and will be voluntary in nature until January 12, 2009, when it becomes mandatory for all individuals traveling under the visa waiver program (VWP).  We have not yet received a meaningful amount of feedback to judge the system’s usability, operation, and its actual effect on clearing U.S. border control, but we expect to do so over the next few days as ESTA-registered travelers make their entry into the U.S.

If you are a VWP traveler who used ESTA to pre-register your trip to the U.S. and would like to share your opinion of the ESTA system and your entry into the U.S. please let us know.

Update: we have heard that the ESTA system does not permit passports with expiration of more than 10 years to use the system.  We believe this is an oversight by the ESTA developers and will be corrected soon as there are legitimate reasons to have passports with expiration date of more than 10 years in the future.

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