The Department of Homeland Security has finalized a rule requiring all foreign nationals who wish to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to obtain permission from the Department’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before embarking on their travel. The rule takes effect January 12, 2009.
The VWP allows citizens of certain countries to visit the United States for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without first obtaining a nonimmigrant visa. The countries currently enrolled in the VWP are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lichtenstein, Luxemburg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
ESTA is an automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the VWP. It requires the same information as the paper I-94W form that VWP travelers currently fill out immediately prior to their entry to the United States. ESTA was created as part of the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Act of 2007.
ESTA applications can be completed at www.cbp.gov/esta. The website is already operational. Travel authorization is valid for two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first. A visitor may make multiple entries to the United States during an authorized period. There is no fee for the ESTA application.
ESTA approval does not guarantee admission to the United States. In all cases, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer will still question the traveler upon entry to make a determination as to admissibility. If an individual is denied authorization under ESTA, he or she will be required to apply for a visa at a U.S. consular post abroad.
Canadians may enter the United States for business or pleasure purposes without a visa but are not part of VWP. This new requirement does not apply to them.