U.S. Testing Online Travel Approval Plan

    July 28, 2008

Travelers who do not need a visa to fly to the United States will have to answer questions about their health and criminal background under a new electronic system launched today.

Starting January 12, 2009, people traveling to the U.S. from the 27 visa waiver countries will be required to fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form online three days before departure.

The system will begin a test phase on August 1 and online registration will be required for all citizens traveling to the U.S. from visa waiver countries.  This includes 15 European Union states, Japan and Australia.

Travelers will be asked questions about contagious diseases, mental disorders, physical disorders, drug abuse, criminal convictions, if they have been involved in spying, terrorist activities or genocide.

The permit is good for two years and once completed online, authorization is given in most cases immediately.

The European Commission is monitoring the test to make sure it is not a visa in disguise and is expected to reach a verdict on the program in November.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it focuses on passengers who pose a risk to security and that by providing details before they depart, legitimate travelers reduce the risk of being turned away once they arrive.

"The ESTA is not a visa," said DHS attach Jackie Bednarz. "We do recognize that it is an additional step," which take a "couple of minutes" to complete.

"We think the ESTA will clearly help those person who have any kind of travel problem that is not known," said Bednarz.

Currently the online form is free, but Bednarz said that could change. "In the future, there may be a fee," she said but did not offer a timetable.