U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) recently announced that travelers from the 35 countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa could be barred from boarding U.S. bound flights starting in March 2010 if they don’t first register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (“ESTA”). ESTA was mandated by Congress in 2007 and implemented by CBP in January 2009. So far, CBP has not enforced compliance with the program and has allowed unregistered visa waiver travelers to board flights to the United States. According to CBP, in recent months approximately 91% of visa waiver travelers to the United States had enrolled in ESTA; however, even with that compliance rate, CBP calculates that approximately 4,000 travelers a day had not registered. Therefore, CBP has initiated a 60-day transition to enforce ESTA compliance for air carriers. Starting March 21st, CBP may start fining airlines up to $3,300 for each passenger who has failed to register and is allowed to board a U.S.-bound flight. That threat will likely result in airlines barring such passengers.

ESTA is accessible online through the CBP website at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. Once an application has been approved, ESTA authorizations generally will be valid for up to two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first. There is no fee for registration with ESTA and authorizations are valid for multiple entries into the United States. To complete an ESTA application, the traveler must provide biographical and background information similar to that required for completion of the I-94W Form issued in flight by airline personnel. Accompanied and unaccompanied children, regardless of age, require an independent ESTA registration. Although registration can be completed a few hours before boarding, CBP recommends that travelers submit their ESTA applications as soon as they begin making travel plans.

In most cases, ESTA provides an almost immediate authorization of eligibility for travel. There are three types of responses to an ESTA application: Authorization Approved; Authorization Pending; or Travel Not Authorized. Applicants who receive an Authorization Pending response will need to check the ESTA website for updates within 72 hours to receive a final response. Applicants whose ESTA applications are denied will be referred to the U.S. State Department website for information on how to apply for a visa.

The visa waiver program enables eligible citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. Consulate. Citizens or nationals of the following countries are currently eligible to travel to the United States under the visa waiver program and must now register in ESTA before traveling to the United States: Andorra; Australia; Austria; Belgium; Brunei; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Hungary; Iceland; Ireland; Italy; Japan; 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.