The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is a system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. The VWP is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and enables eligible citizens or nationals of designated countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. ESTA is a web-based system run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), designed for citizens of countries that participate in the VWP. In order to apply for ESTA, you must fill out the online application and pay a processing plus authorization charge. Upon completion of an ESTA application, a traveler is notified of his or her edibility to travel to the U.S. under VWP. Authorization through ESTA does not necessarily determine whether a traveler will be admitted into the U.S. The CBP officers will still need to determine admissibility of a person upon their arrival. An approved ESTA application is valid for two years and allows for multiple visits to the U.S.
Some changes were made to the ESTA program in 2016 that travelers from VWP countries should be made aware of. Beginning January 21, 2016, nationals of VWP countries who are dual citizens or who have been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan at any time on or after March 1, 2011 will no longer be eligible to travel to the U.S. under the VWP program. Some exceptions apply to those travelers in the armed forces or who traveled to those countries under a governmental capacity. This change came from the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. Individuals from these countries will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at U.S. embassies or consulates. On February 18, 2016 DHS announced the addition of Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the list of countries of concern. The addition of Libya, Somalia and Yemen only triggers ESTA restrictions based on travel to those countries, not based on dual citizenship. As of April 1, 2016, an e-passport is required to use the VWP. An e-passport contains an electronic chip that holds the same information that is contained on the passport’s data page, as well as a biometric identifier and a digital photo of the holder.
Another program run by CBP that many may not be aware of is referred to as the “Six-Month Club.” Usually, visitors traveling to the U.S. are required to be in possession of passports that are valid for 6 months beyond the period of their intended stay in the U.S. Citizens in countries deemed eligible by CBP are exempt for the six-month rule and need only have a passport valid for their intended period of stay. The list is updated frequently, and was last updated on November 21, 2016, when Algeria was taking off the list. The newest member of the club is Saudi Arabia, added in June 2016. If your country is not a member of the Six-Month Club, and your passport doesn’t meet the six-month requirement at time of entry, your authorized stay may be shortened accordingly. So if at all possible, renew your passport early to avoid any potential issues when entering the U.S.