Organizations with overseas operations in certain countries that routinely send employees to the United States for short-term business travel now need to plan ahead before sending employees to the airport. In its ongoing efforts "to strengthen the security of travel to the United States," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has implemented a new protocol for Visa Waiver travelers. On August 12, 2008 the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s "Electronic System for Travel Authorization Web Site" went live. All foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States using the Visa Waiver Program now must access the secure web site, enter requested information and receive authorization before boarding an aircraft. The airline will verify a traveler’s authorization status through an electronic verification from Customs and Border Protection before allowing the passenger to board. CBP recommends obtaining the authorization at least three days before any planned travel using the Visa Waiver Program. Upon approval, the authorization will be valid for two years unless revoked sooner.
For background, in 1986, the U.S. Congress created the Visa Waiver Program (formerly known as the "Visa Waiver Pilot Program") to facilitate the entry of foreign nationals from countries with high numbers of visa applicants and low denials. The Program is limited to foreign nationals desiring to travel to the United States for either business or pleasure, as would be appropriate for the B-1 (business) or B-2 (pleasure) visa categories.
This new pre-authorization is a radical change from prior practice. It also differs dramatically from the requirements of U.S. citizen travelers to many of the visa waiver countries. The only preparation required under the previous rules was that the traveler make an airline reservation and present his/her passport at the time of travel.
Other rules governing the program have remained the same. The maximum period of stay is 90 days and cannot be extended. To qualify for the VWP, as noted above, one must intend to engage in either business or tourist activities. The traveler also must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the intended period of stay and have a return trip ticket.
The following countries currently are eligible for travel under the VWP: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.