When I traveled to Australia last year I registered online for an e-visa. The process was quick and easy and I obtained my authorization in less than 15 minutes and printed out the single page form on my own printer. Now the U.S.government has implemented a similar system, but instead of modernizing the application process for citizens of countries who must obtain a visa to visit the U.S., they are adding another level of approval for citizens of countries that enjoy visa-free travel to the U.S. Beginning January 12, 2009, citizens of countries that do not need a visa to visit the U.S. will be required to register their travel plans online and obtain approval prior to their departure date.
To facilitate the online approval requirement, the Department of Homeland Security has been testing a new system, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Since August, some 300,000 people from eligible countries have used the system, which determines whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. Upon completion of an ESTA application the traveler is notified of his or her eligibility.
For the past two years, Congress has been working to revamp the entire Visa Waiver Program, which specifies the process by which a country may become approved for visa-free travel to the U.S. In order to be admitted to the program, countries must agree to share information about potential security threats, develop and issue tamper-proof biometric passports, and require citizens to apply online for approval to travel to the U.S. prior to their departure.
The revamped program will resolve some long-standing inequities. For example, U.S. citizens have long been allowed to travel to the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea visa-free but we had not accorded their citizens the same privilege when visiting the United States. Now all seven of these countries have met the requirements to be admitted to the Visa Waiver Program, which means that the citizens of these nations will be able to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism without a visa.
President Bush announced these changes in a press conference last month, stating:
“For years the leaders of these nations have explained to me how frustrating it is for their citizens to wait in lines and pay visa fees to take a vacation or make a business trip or visit their families here in the United States. These close friends of America told me that it was unfair that their people had to jump through bureaucratic hoops that other allies can walk around. I told them I agree with them. I also told them that in the world after September 11th, we could only expand travel opportunities if we increased security measures at the same time.”
The addition of these seven new countries is expected to be finalized today. Additionally, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland, and Romania are all participating in a process called the “visa waiver road map” that is helping them qualify for the Visa Waiver Program. Currently, citizens of the following countries are eligible to travel to the United States without a visa: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
For the time being, citizens of countries who are required to obtain a visa for travel to the U.S. will still have to suffer an onerous application process managed by the U.S. Embassies around the globe, but here’s hoping our modernization efforts will ultimately allow foreign travelers to obtain visas online as well. As we switch from manually handling each visa application to electronically matching against databases of known terrorists and undesirables, the process would not only assure higher security but would result in enormous cost reductions.