What is an ESTA?
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What is an ESTA?

ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation. The ESTA Visa Waiver program was set up by the Department of Homeland Security to enable those citizens or nationals of participating countries eligibile to apply to enter the United States for a maximum stay of 90 days without the need to obtain a visa. This initiative, set up on 12th January 2009, requires that a citizen entering the United States under the visa waiver program must have been authorised an ESTA. This process allows for the Department of Homeland Security to determine the level of risk an international traveler may have to the national security of the United States prior to the individual boarding an aircraft or ship intended for America.

Why is an ESTA required for travel to the US?

The amendment made to Section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), titled ‘Implementing Recommendations of 9/11 Commission Act of 2007’, requires that the Department of Homeland Security must instigate an electronic travel authorisation system to further enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program.

The ESTA program adds an extra level of security for international travellers entering the United States, and allows for the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether a specific person is eligible to enter the United States prior to entering the country, and whether or not the individual is a potential law enforcement or national security risk.

Is the ESTA a visa?

An approved ESTA is not a visa. The ESTA visa waiver fails to meet the same legal and regulatory requirements as a U.S. visa when a visa is required under U.S. law, therefore an ESTA visa does not act as a substitute for a U.S. visa. Those citizens who have obtained a U.S. visa are still able to travel to the United States as long as their purpose of travel is the same as the stated purpose of travel on their initial visa.

The ESTA visa application is quick and simple for most, if not all, travellers. The process consists of separate security stages, which may usually require an appointment, a visit to a US Embassy, a formal interview with a member of the consulate office, a fee payment (which is currently set at $131) and time to process an application.

What laws are ESTAs governed under?

The amendment of Section 711 of the ‘Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007’ requires the Department of Homeland Security to set up an automated process which determines, prior to travel to the United States, whether an individual is eligible to enter the country under the ESTA visa program, and whether or not the individual in question is a threat to homeland security or law enforcement.

How does an ESTA improve US security risks?

The ESTA visa waiver program enables the Department of Homeland Security to evaluate the level of risk an individual poses towards the United States law enforcement and national security, prior to the individual in question entering the country.

The ESTA program acts as a counterweight to the potential risks involved with visa free travel across boarders by inaugurating an extra level of scrutiny, whereby Department of Homeland Security frontline members of staff can identify those travellers who may pose as a risk to the United States and act accordingly to ensure the safety of the United States. This added layer of security means that international travellers entering the country have had checks and have been approved to enter the States according to the requirements of the ESTA visa waiver.

ESTA Visa Waiver Program Enhancement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015

Under the ESTA Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, travellers from the following countries intending to visit the United States are no longer eligible to apply for a Visa Waiver Application and will not be admitted into the United States under the ESTA program:

• Citizens who have visited or been present in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after March 1st 2011. The limited exceptions are for military or diplomatic purposes.

• Nationals of ESTA Visa Waiver Program countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen. Individuals from these countries are still able to apply for an ESTA Visa Waiver by attending an appointment at a United States Embassy or Consulate.

It is strongly advised that citizens check their ESTA Visa Waiver Application status prior to making travel reservations to or in the United States. For those citizens who have visited the above countries for military or diplomatic purposes, it is advised that they bring the appropriate documentation when traveling through a U.S. port of entry. The Department of Homeland Security may add new countries to this list at their discretion.

In addition to these amendments to the ESTA Visa Waiver Program, as of 1st April 2016, it is now a necessity to have an e-passport in order to apply under the ESTA waiver program. An E-Passport is a more secure passport embedded with an electronic chip. You can identify an E-Passport by determining whether or not there is a unique international symbol on the cover.

Why is it necessary to expand the amount of ESTA information being collected from the Visa Waiver Program travellers?

The Department of Homeland Security is concerned about the risks presented by the situation in Syria and Iraq, where political instability has attracted thousands of international fighters, many of whom are nationals from ESTA Visa Waiver countries. As a result, individuals could travel to the United States for operational purposes on their own or at the request of violent extremist groups.

This concern is shared with U.S. Congress, and on December 18th 2015, the Consolidation Appropriations Act 2016 was signed into law, which includes the ESTA Visa Waiver Program Enhancement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. This particular act, among others, has created new entry requirements for international travellers intending to travel to the United States under the ESTA Visa Waiver program. These entry requirements do not restrict travel to the United States however. A traveler who does not meet the requirements of the ESTA Visa Waiver Program must instead apply for a U.S. visa in order to travel to the United States. This will generally include an in-person interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.