Starting Monday, travelers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Australia, and a host of other countries will have to register online with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before they can travel into the United States.
As part of its efforts to use technology to improve border security, the DHS is mandating that travelers from any of the 35 countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program apply online for an Electronic System of Travel Authorization before boarding a plane to the U.S. Previously, visitors from those countries were only required to fill out the I-94W form on flights to the U.S. for trips shorter than 90 days.
The ESTA applications collect the same information as the I-94W form and check it against DHS databases to determine whether a traveler poses a law enforcement or security risk. That information includes biographical data like birth date and passport information, as well as information regarding communicable diseases, arrests, convictions for certain crimes, and mental disorders that spur behavior that may pose a threat to others.
ESTA is a “key security element” of the Visa Waiver Program, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote on the DHS Leadership Journal blog.
“By requiring travelers to register online before their journey, ESTA gives authorities more time to screen for threats and ensure that a traveler isn’t a known security risk,” he said.
The Web-based program lets an applicant know within minutes if their application has been approved. If it is not, the traveler can still attempt to enter the U.S. by acquiring a visa. Travelers can submit ESTA applications up to two years in advance, even without a specific destination in mind.
If a traveler does not have Internet access, the DHS says in its ESTA FAQ (PDF) that “a third party, such as a relative, friend, or travel agent, may submit an ESTA application on behalf of the traveler.”
DHS began accepting voluntary applications through the ESTA site in August 2008. Since then, more than one million people have used the system without any problem, Chertoff said, though some organizations say the program could have been better implemented.
Advanced screening of travelers from countries in the Visa Waiver Program is required through the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, but the DHS introduced rules for the ESTA program in June 2008 without seeking public comment on it.
“By missing an opportunity for public or stakeholder input, DHS has circumvented a process that could have resulted in a much improved program,” the Air Transport Association of America said in a statement at the time.
Elizabeth Merida, a spokesperson for the ATA, said it was too early to tell how well the program is running now that it is mandatory for all Visa Waiver Program countries. The ATA, however, has been working with DHS to make sure it is implemented smoothly.
In October, when the ESTA program became mandatory for citizens of certain countries, the International Air Transport Association warned against the lack of mechanisms in place to deal with travelers who will inevitably reach an airline ticket counter without an approved ESTA application. More than 15 million people last year traveled through the United States from Visa Waiver Program countries, according to the DHS.
To deal with unprepared travelers, airlines may have to collect sensitive information for ESTA applications–“something that the industry does not wish to do, even if a technical solution is possible,” the IATA said.
Once that information is collected, the DHS will retain it for two years in order for travelers to enter the U.S. After that, the DHS archives the information for 12 years–limiting the officials who can access it–so it can be retrieved for law enforcement, national security, or investigatory purposes. When ESTA applications are used in lieu of the I-94W form–which is the ultimate goal of the program–the data will be retained for 75 years, in accordance with the I-94W retention schedule.