Meeting planners should get to know the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization program, says Helen Marano, director, tourism industries at the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism in Washington. ESTA requires that all international travelers coming to the United States from visa-waiver countries register in an online database before boarding a plane.
International travelers from the 35 visa-waiver countries have had to fill out an I-94W form before coming to the U.S. The form, which must be completed before each visit, asks where travelers are going, what they doing there, how long will they stay, and the country in which they claim citizenship. ESTA seeks to streamline that process by requiring that international travelers go to the ESTA Web site and fill out an application before coming to the United States by air or sea. If the application is approved, it is good for two years and can be renewed easily. Travelers no longer will be required to fill out an I-94W form before each trip.
The Department of Homeland Security introduced ESTA as a way to screen passengers in advance and improve security, Marano says.
ESTA went into effect on January 12, 2009, but it’s been a soft rollout, she says. Currently, customs officials are asking for both the I-94W form and the online ESTA application. If travelers arrive at the airport and have not filled out the ESTA application, they will be reminded to do so the next time. But soon, probably sometime in 2010, the I-94W forms will be phased out and the ESTA grace period will end. Travelers then won’t be allowed to travel to the U.S. until they complete the online ESTA form.
However, visitors from non-visa-waiver countries still will have to complete the I-94W.
Meeting planners should alert international members and attendees to these new regulations. Marano suggests posting reminders on conference home pages or registration Web pages. Planners also should provide a link to the ESTA Web site.