U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that all travelers seeking admission under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will be subject to enhanced security measures. This measure is being implemented in response to concerns that a significant number of foreign fighters, including U.S. and European nationals, have traveled to Syria to support terrorist groups whose ideology and radical views pose a serious security threat to the United States. U.S. authorities are concerned that members of these terrorist groups who qualify for the VWP will become further radicalized and then attempt to enter the United States to conduct attacks. The VWP raises a security risk because nationals who qualify for the program are not required to process a visa application at a U.S. Consulate abroad, which requires an in-person interview and submission of additional biographic information, thereby adding another layer of security. In response, as confirmed in a statement by Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), all VWP travelers are now required to provide additional information in the travel application submitted via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that is used to vet prospective VWP travelers.
By way of background, the VWP permits citizens of certain countries (see list here) to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of up to 90 days. All VWP travelers must have a valid ESTA approval prior to travel. The ESTA application collects biographic information and answers to VWP eligibility questions. Since ESTA’s implementation in 2008, CBP has admitted millions of VWP travelers; however, it has denied 4,300 ESTA applications of individuals known or suspected of being on the U.S. government’s terrorist watch list. Following the enhancements made to ESTA, it is expected that the denial rate of ESTA applications will increase.
The additional ESTA questions are: (i) Other names/aliases or other citizenships; (ii) Parents name(s); (iii) National Identification Number (if applicable); (iv) Contact information (email, phone, points of contact); (v) Employment information (if applicable); and (vi) City of birth. These additional ESTA requirements are still less than what is required of an individual who processes a visa application through a U.S. Consulate abroad. However, it should be noted that all countries that participate in the VWP must have a high degree of security cooperation, including sharing information about known, suspected or potential terrorists and serious criminals, reporting stolen passports that could be used by potential terrorists, among others. Further, the data captured in ESTA is checked against a variety of databases, such as the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), lost and stolen passport records (including INTERPOL’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD); visa revocations; previous VWP refusals; expedited removals; and Public Health records. So, the ability to identify high-risk travelers is effective.
Any VWP traveler who completed their ESTA process prior to the new requirements does not need to reapply. Obviously, once the ESTA approval expires or the linked passport expires, a new ESTA with the new data fields will need to be completed before travel to the United States can be conducted.