Effective January 20, inbound travelers to the United States from Visa Waiver Program countries may be denied boarding by the airlines if they haven’t complied with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization program.
ESTA, introduced in January 2009, requires all international travelers from VWP countries to register in an online database. Previously, international travelers had to fill out an I-94W form before each trip, but ESTA seeks to streamline and update the process. Now, international travelers to the United States must go to the ESTA Web site and fill out an application before entering the country by air or sea. If approved, the authorization is good for two years and can be renewed. Travelers no longer have to fill out an I-94W form before each trip. U.S. officials say ESTA will speed up the process for travelers, enable customs officials to screen passengers in advance, and improve security.
Since ESTA was unveiled on January 12, 2009, it hasn’t been strictly enforced. Those who didn’t apply for ESTA were given a friendly reminder to do so next time. But starting January 20, 2010, the program has new teeth and, according to the Web site, “VWP travelers who have not received an ESTA approval … may be denied boarding. CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] will handle emergencies on a case-by-case basis.” On January 20, DHS officials initiated a 60-day transition to enforced ESTA compliance for air carriers. After that period, the I-94W forms will be eliminated, and airlines risk fines for allowing travelers to board without the proper documentation.
What does this mean for meetings? The U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism advises planners to alert international members and attendees to these new regulations. They should also post reminders on conference Web sites and registration Web pages and provide a link to the ESTA Web site.
The U.S. Travel Association expressed disappointment over the implementation of the policy, fearing it will make the United States a less desirable place to visit. In a press release, U.S. Travel says “the U.S. government appears to lack a comprehensive communications campaign, alliance with airlines, or partnership with foreign airports to drive ESTA enrollment beyond the current level of compliance.” The association is encouraging Congress to earmark funds for programs that would drive enrollment, including Internet kiosks at international airport terminals.
The ESTA requirement does not affect U.S. citizens returning from overseas, people from VWP countries traveling on a valid U.S. visa, or travelers from non-VWP nations.