In June 2008, the US Department of Homeland Security announced some changes to the current Visa Waiver Program; a pre-travel authorisation process for visitors from Visa Waiver Program countries, known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
From August 2008 visitors to the USA from visa waiver countries who do not hold a valid visa have to register online before making their trip to the USA. This registration effectively replaces the green I-94W form that visa waiver visitors have to fill in on the plane or boat before landing in the US. From September 8, 2010 there is a $14 application fee.
This is another part of the continual tightening of law enforcement and security measures for visitors to the USA
When the scheme was introduced it was voluntary but it became mandatory from January 20, 2010. Last year, some 15 million people entered the USA under the Visa Waiver Program.
In November 2009, there was a proposal made for a new tourist tax on all international travellers entering the United States on the Visa Waiver Program via the US Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). This tax comes into effect on September 8, 2010 and costs $14 per person. Like the ESTA itself, it will be valid for up to two years.
This means a typical family of four will have to find an extra $56 to cover the costs of this tax.
The electronic registration is valid for a period of up to two years or until you change your passport, which ever occurs first.
This means one approval application is valid for multiple entries. There is the ability to update your details so it should be possible to make an application once you have decided on a trip and then update the application when your travel arrangements are confirmed.
If you then make another trip, it is possible to update your application with your new travel details, address, flight number etc.
Note that during the interim voluntary period, visitors still need to complete an I-94W, even if they register online.
The ESTA does not guarantee admittance to the USA, it is merely an approval to board the plane or ship before departing for the USA. You will still need to go through the normal immigration controls on arrival but in theory it will speed things up.
If your ESTA is denied, you will need to apply for a visa through a US Embassy. Children of all ages will need to obtain an ESTA and a third party will be able to apply on their behalf.
If you hold a valid visa, then you do not need to apply for an ESTA. ESTA is also not applicable for land crossings; e.g. from Canada or Mexico by road.
Online registrations should be made not less than 72 hours prior to travel at the ESTA web site.
Current Visa Waiver Program Countries
The following countries are currently in the visa waiver program:
Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Other countries are trying to be included in the program. It is estimated that if Brazil were included in the Visa Waiver Program, visitor numbers to Florida could double. During President Obama's visit to Disney's Magic Kingdom in January 2012, he stated that the US would look into the possibility of including Brazil in the Visa Waiver Program.
It seems incredible but in a country that is a similar size to the United States, there are only four US consulates in Brazil. For a Brazilian to get a visa they must visit one of these consulates for an interview. It can take anything up to 100 days to get an appointment, with an average wait time of over 2 months.