As of January 12th 2009, all visitors to the US who are eligible for the visa waiver program will have to apply for travel authorization at least 72 hours prior to their trip.
There are 35 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and if you have ever come to the US on the VWP, you’ll have probably filled in one of those annoying green forms on your flight here.
Those days are now officially over, and the US Government wants to know who is coming here, before they get on the plane.
Statistics from the Department of Homeland Security claim that 99.6% of all people who apply for travel permission get it granted within seconds, which still leaves a fairly decent amount of people who do not get it, for any number of reasons.
The new authorization system is called ESTA – Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The site is available in 16 different languages. To apply for permission to fly to the US, you enter all your personal information, passport data, and flight numbers. You then get to answer the same questions you probably remember from the VWP form, which are there to determine whether you are a Nazi, drug dealer or other nasty kind of person.
If all works out, and you are not on a terrorist watch list, you’ll receive an authorization number. If the system declines your request, you’ll be required to apply for a regular visa through your local US Consulate or Embassy, which will most certainly take some time, so be sure you don’t wait too long!
Of course, as with all new systems like this, there are going to be some glitches, but the most worrying statistic is that far too many people had not heard of the new rules, and arrive at the airport unprepared. Thankfully, the US government has allowed for a short grace period.
The hardest hit are going to be people without Internet access as there is no offline application process. There will be no terminals at the airport, and people in a VWP country who arrive at the airport without an ESTA authorization number may be denied boarding.
Once you register for ESTA, the authorization is valid for 2 years, or the life of your passport (whichever is shorter). As with all international travel, you will need at least 6 months duration left on your passport if you want authorization.
The official ESTA site can be found here, just make sure you don’t fall for the tricks of paid services like Esta.us, who’ll do “all the hard work” for you, for a mere $249!