New Requirements for Visa Waiver Travel to the U.S. Will Take Effect on January 12, 2009 & New Countries to be Added to Visa Waiver Program

November 18, 2008

The Department of Homeland Security has announced that, effective January 12, 2009, all foreign visitors seeking entry through the Visa Waiver Program will be required to register online and obtain advance approval before embarking on their flight to the U.S.  The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is a new online system that requires travelers to answer the same questions as the paper Form I-94W that is currently filled out en route to the U.S.  The purpose of obtaining advance authorization to utilize the Visa Waiver Program is to avoid delays at the airport upon arrival for individuals who are then determined to be inadmissible and must be returned to their country of origin.

The ESTA process will require all Visa Waiver Program travelers to register online and obtain approval to proceed with their trip.  If the ESTA registration results in a determination that the traveler is not authorized to use the Visa Waiver Program, then the traveler must apply for and obtain a visa stamp at a U.S. consulate prior to embarking on a trip to the U.S.  Beginning January 12, 2009, airlines will refuse to board travelers seeking to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program if the traveler has not obtained ESTA authorization.

The ESTA program is already available online (see link at bottom of this bulletin).  The DHS recommends that travelers register online at least 72 hours prior to their travel to the U.S.  An approval is valid for 2 years or until the individual’s passport expires, whichever comes first, and the approval is valid for multiple entries throughout this period.  We recommend that Visa Waiver travelers register and obtain approval as soon as possible prior to any travel to the U.S.  We also recommend that Visa Waiver travelers make a note of the date of ESTA authorization and keep that information with their passport, as a reminder to re-register two years later.

Currently the Visa Waiver Program is available to 27 countries whose citizens may visit the U.S. for business or pleasure without a visa (see link to Fact Sheet for the list of countries).  As of November 17, 2008, seven countries will be added to the list of countries eligible for Visa Waiver Program travel.  These countries are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, and South Korea.  Please note that travelers from these seven countries will be required to obtain ESTA approval from the first date of their participation in the Visa Waiver Program.  Therefore, any travelers from these seven countries seeking to visit the U.S. without a visa must already now register with ESTA and obtain authorization by the date of their travel.  Citizens of these countries must also have a biometric passport in order to seek admission without a visa.

Travelers to the U.S. who have valid visas do not need to register with ESTA.  The Visa Waiver Program is limited to citizens of eligible countries who are visiting the U.S. for business or pleasure for 90 days or less.  Individuals who wish to enter the U.S. to work must have an appropriate visa.