The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced its interim final rule on a system that requires travelers from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program to provide biographical information electronically before boarding a U.S.-bound airplane or cruise ship.

The rule governs what is called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Once this rule goes into effect in January 2009, VWP passengers will need to have an electronic travel authorization before traveling to the U.S. Today this biographical data is collected from passengers while en route to the U.S.

DHS is urging travelers from VWP counties to submit ESTA applications at least 72 hours in advance. Press reports out of Europe suggest that European Union officials are concerned that the 72-hour provision could hinder last-minute travel from Europe to the United States.

However, travelers do not need to wait to sign up. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, in remarks made recently about the ESTA rule, noted the ESTA authorization will be valid for two years, or until a traveler’s passport expires, whichever occurs first. “So you’re not going to have to do this every time you travel, nor, by the way, do you have to wait until you have a trip scheduled,” Chertoff said. “Once this system opens up, regular business travelers may be well-advised to sign up with this system before they have planned travel, and then they’ll be able to rely on that authorization over a two-year period.” The requirement does not affect U.S. citizens traveling overseas.

For more information about ESTA, go to www.CBP.gov/esta.