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ESTA Articles

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.