As the threat from terrorists around the world continues to grow, and concerns in various countries continue to mushroom out of control, it seems as though the US authorities, or to be more exact the US Department of Homeland Security, has taken it upon itself to implement various changes which will have an impact on all travellers to the US who do not require a visa (or who did not require a visa under the old system). So what exactly is going on and has the US Department of Homeland Security gone too far?
What is happening now?
As from the 12 January all members of the so-called US immigration visa waiver program (VWP) travelling to America must register their personal travel information at least three days prior to travelling. Information is entered on to a secure website which is known as the electronic system of travel authorisation (ESTA) and is required for entry to the country.
Even though the website has been online since 1 August, 2008 it is only after 12 January, 2009 that it is compulsory to have entered your details on to the system and gained the required permission to enter the country. The questions are very simple, it does not take too long to complete and in over 99% of cases you will have a result in less than four seconds but not all travellers are using the system which could result in significant delays or even refusal of entry to America.
How many people will this affect?
The UK is part of the US system which does not require a visa for entry and as such 4.6 million UK travellers to the US will need to use the website before their departure. As we approach 12 January there has been a significant increase in applications with 7,934 on 2 January, 9,197 on 3 January and 13,740 on 6 January. While data after the 6 January is not yet available it is fully expected that more and more travellers will use the site in the correct manner before they depart from the UK to the US.
When you consider that the UK is just one part of the visa waiver system there are potentially millions upon millions of travellers who will need to acquaint themselves with this new system as soon as possible otherwise then they may well be refused entry to the US and some may not even make it onto the plane!
Why have the US authorities taken on such a stance?
It is difficult to know why the American authorities have taken such a stance at this late stage when they have had literally years to reconsider their entry requirements from countries such as the UK. Whether they know of, or suspect, an increased threat from the terrorist community around the world remains to be seen but many are confused.
The simple entry of data onto a website from any point around the world would seem a little pointless bearing in mind ID theft and similar fraudulent activity is rife around the world. The information required includes the following:-
Country of citizenship
Country where you live
Passport issuing country
Passport issuance date
Passport expiration date
City where you are boarding
Airline and flight number
Address while in the States
Confirmation regarding physical or mental disorders
Spying or terrorist experience
Your history in the US
Confirmation you have not detained, retained or withheld custody of a child from the US
Confirmation you have never been refused entry to the US before or had your US visa cancelled
Have you ever applied for immunity from prosecution
Waiver of rights to appeal
Confirmation that you agree to biometric identifiers on entering the country
Those who follow the history of US immigration may well be aware that the authorities already have access to airline passenger data well ahead of the flight date so they are able to check each application against an incoming flight.
So have they now gone too far?
Time will tell whether the system which is in place will make any real difference to the threat to the US from terrorist groups and those intent on criminal activity. In many ways this is really a non-event and while the authorities in the US are “being seen to do something” there is a debate as to how effective the system will be. It may well end up causing more trouble, more delays and ultimately impacting on visitor numbers to the US which will in turn impact on the US economy.
Many are also concerned that the new system will make departure points such as the UK and other countries around the world which do not require visas to enter America more popular for terrorists and criminals groups. These groups will now be able to bypass the traditional US visa application system and use countries such as the UK, in conjunction with the US website, to attempt to gain entry.
While the US authorities do not plan to instigate a blanket ban on those who fail to fill in a questionnaire before flying to the US there is no doubt that non-completion on the entry authorisation form will cause delays and other potential serious problems. It is not clear whether this is part one of a longer-term approach and longer-term system or whether this is it, the new US non-visa entry authorisation system!
In many ways the US has been forced to at least attempt to create a new system to protect the country from those intent on doing harm however whether this is the way ahead is highly debatable. This is a system which has been on the cards for some time and now that is here there is every chance the vast majority of travellers will use it but what difference will it really make?
While many are prepared to give the system the benefit of the doubt for the moment there is some concern that over complication of the entry system into America could see a number of potential visitors look elsewhere for their recreational and holiday times which could in due course have an impact on the US economy. Trying to find a balance between security, paperwork and the US economy is very difficult as the incoming US President Barack Obama is set to experience.