The Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program is expected to become mandatory on January 12, 2009. At that time, all travelers under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will be required to obtain an ESTA approval prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea (land ports from Canada and Mexico are exempt). ESTA is an automated system used to verify the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the VWP. (VWP allows citizens and nationals of selected countries, including Australia, Japan, Singapore and most Western European countries, to travel to the United States for business or tourism for a period of up to 90 days without the need for a visa.) The Department announced on October 15 that it has added ESTA instructions in several languages to facilitate the ESTA registration process.

ESTA authorizations will be generally valid for two years and will enable multiple entries into the U.S. While an ESTA authorization is not a guarantee of admission to the U.S., it will serve to prevent some VWP applicants from being refused admission and returned to his/her home country following inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after arriving in the United States on an international flight. To register for the program, visit the ESTA website.

In other VWP news, President Bush announced on October 17 that seven countries have met the program’s requirements and will be added to the VWP within a few weeks. Citizens of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea will soon be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism visits without a visa. For more information on the expansion of the VWP, see the White House press release.