Immediate Changes to the Visa Waiver Program

Jennifer L. Cory, Esq., Partner
N.C. Board Certified Immigration Law Specialist
Jennifer.Cory@garfinkelimmigration.com

The Visa Waiver Program permits foreign nationals from participating countries to visit the U.S. for business or pleasure without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. consulate outside the U.S. To qualify, the visitor must possess a machine-readable passport from one of the following countries: United Kingdom; Japan; France; Switzerland; Germany; Sweden; Italy; the Netherlands; Andorra; Austria; Belgium; Denmark; Finland; Iceland; Liechtenstein; Luxembourg; Monaco; New Zealand; Norway; San Marino; Spain; Brunei; Australia; Ireland; Portugal; Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Republic of Korea, the Slovak Republic and Singapore. Additionally, the visitor must register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This online application system located at http://cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/id_visa/esta/ was developed by the U.S. government to prescreen travelers before permitting them to board an airplane or ship bound for the U.S.

As of November 3, 2014, foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. via the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will be required to provide additional information when registering with ESTA. Visitors will be required to answer questions (as applicable) about other names, aliases and citizenships, parent name(s), national identification number(s), email, phone and points of contact, employment and city of birth. Concerns over the security of the VWP prompted these enhancements.

When announcing these changes, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made a point to reassure the public that "the U.S. government does not currently have any credible information that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or other Syria-based terrorist groups are planning imminent attacks against the United States." Clearly though, the changes are targeted at combating the threat posed by those U.S. and European citizens who possess legitimate European and U.S. travel documents and who are traveling to the Middle East and Africa to join and train with terrorist groups to commit terrorist attacks in Europe or the U.S.

The ESTA program has been effective. Since its inception in August 2008, CBP reports over 4,300 ESTA applications being denied as a result of vetting against the U.S. government's known/suspected terrorist watch-list. The CBP also denied over 22,500 ESTA applications involving a lost or stolen passport. The hope is that the new enhancements improve the U.S. government's ability to identify threats to the U.S., as well as known or suspected terrorists seeking to travel to the U.S. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be able to use this information to better verify identities, thereby limiting the number of rejected applicants that will be required to visa process.

For those with valid, approved ESTA applications, there is no need to update the application or submit another. However, when the current ESTA registration or passport expires, a new ESTA containing the additional questions will be required for future travel pursuant to the VWP.

As always, visitors traveling pursuant to the VWP are subject to the same restrictions on their activities in the U.S. as those admitted under B visas. They must be entering the U.S. for a stay of limited duration. They must intend to depart the U.S. at the end of the authorized period of stay (not to exceed ninety (90) days). They must continue to maintain a foreign residence of which they have no intention of abandoning. They must have made adequate financial arrangements to travel to, in, and from the U.S. And they must engage solely in authorized business or pleasure activities while in the U.S.

For more information about visa-free travel to the U.S. and what activities are permitted of visitors in the U.S., please contact one of our attorneys.