ESTA is a web-based data collection system, initially launched by the Department of Homeland Security in August 2008, which determines the preliminary eligibility of visitors to travel “visa-free”, under the VWP, prior to traveling to the United States.
According to recent DHS data, more than 1.2 million ESTA applications have been received, and over 98% of applicants have been approved. DHS further states that will take a ‘reasonable approach’ to travelers who have not obtained an approved travel authorization via ESTA, and will continue an aggressive advertising and outreach campaign throughout 2009.
Travelers without an approved ESTA are advised, however, that they may be denied boarding, experience delayed processing, or be denied admission at a U.S. port of entry.
The citizens or nationals of the following countries are currently eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Eight of these countries joined the VWP in 2008, and their citizens and nationals have been required to comply with an ESTA since their designation as VWP participants: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Malta.
There has been some degree of confusion as to when and how ESTA applies. In brief, ESTA only applies to foreign nationals (Non-U.S. citizens) who are eligible to travel to the United States under the terms and conditions of the Visa Waiver Program, without a Visa or Green Card, or other government-issued permission.
Any person who needs a visa or has a visa already does not need to complete the ESTA process prior to traveling to the United States. Essentially anyone who would complete a WHITE I-94 card at arrival in the U.S., does not participate in ESTA. On the flip side, anyone who would normally complete a GREEN I-94W card at arrival in the U.S. MUST now complete ESTA.
While the ESTA is geared to eventually phasing out paper I-94W cards altogether, it is CBP’s current advice and recommendation to complete BOTH, the ESTA online, AND the paper I-94W card for inspection. It is further recommended that the ESTA-traveler bring a paper printout of their ESTA application response in order to maintain a record of their ESTA application number.
The ESTA application Web site has been made available in several languages and helps to guide VWP travelers through the application process.