Visa waivers go online

The Homeland Security Department released the interim final rule for an automated online registration system today that authorities will use to prescreen travelers who visit the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) requires travelers planning to enter the country under VWP to receive electronic authorization before boarding a ship or airplane bound for the United States. That process will replace the written I-94W form that travelers now fill out en route.

The information required under ESTA will be the same that VWP passengers put on their I-94W forms.

Travelers can submit their ESTA applications anytime before they travel, although DHS recommends that they do so at least 72 hours before departing. Authorizations will be valid for as long as two years or until the applicant’s passport expires.

“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 [United States] without a visa,” DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. “It is a relatively simple and effective way to strengthen our security and that of international travelers while helping to preserve an important program for key allies.”

DHS has been working to add to the 27 countries that participate in VWP and meet a congressional mandate to strengthen the security aspects of VWP agreements.

In addition to complying with ESTA, countries that participate in VWP will be required report missing passports, enhance security measures at airports at which flights to the United States originate and allow air marshals on some flights.

In a press statement, DHS officials said the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated the new electronic system. They also said they plan to publish a notice in the Federal Register by mid-November announcing that ESTA requirements will become mandatory Jan. 12, 2009.

Until then, VWP travelers will still have to fill out I-94W forms. But starting Aug. 1, they can voluntarily use the new electronic application at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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