From the producer of our poorly-orchestrated increased airline security measures (“Only Terrorists Carry 200 ml of Toothpaste”) and the creator of the color-based national security threat chart (“Like Clockwork, Orange!”), a new move certain to alienate our closest friends and allies: starting January 12, 2009, all travelers to the U.S. who travel without visa restrictions (15 million people annually) will now be required to register themselves and their travel plans online at least 72 hours prior to travel or be denied boarding on their chosen air or sea carrier.
Just whom does this affect? Try Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. (In the near future, our friends from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and South Korea too.)
What hasn’t changed? This is the same information the U.S. government has always collected from these travelers on a form passed out by each carrier prior to arrival and turned in to border agents. The digital information will be kept just as long as the paper version: an unbelievable 75 years! Canadians and Mexicans are not affected by this regulation, nor are those arriving by car, foot, bus or bicycle.
What has changed? The information can be submitted ONLY via internet. Travelers must provide this information no later than 72 hours in advance of their departure or will be denied boarding. Those denied visa-free waivers will be notified prior to arrival on U.S. soil that they will not be granted admission and directed to apply for visas. While currently free, the government is reserving the right to charge for this “service”!
What’s improved? If your passport details don’t change, your ESTA travel authorization remains valid for two years and for multiple entries into the U.S., meaning frequent travelers will in fact have less paperwork. If you were going to be denied visa-free entry, you would find out ahead of time, allowing you to apply for a visa prior to travel.
What’s still unclear? Who exactly is responsible for filing the information: you or your ticket agent? What happens for last-minute travelers? How will airlines know who’s filed and who hasn’t? Will the EU approve the measure following its examination of the related treaties of its member states? And might they seriously start charging to finance the change?
Reactions, not surprisingly, have been negative.
New Zealand Herald: Travel Agents Association New Zealand president Peter Barlow said travellers to Europe increasingly chose to travel via Asia because of the US’s “extreme” stance on security. “This is just another compelling reason to not go via the States.”
Washington Post: Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said the effort “contributes to an atmosphere of general distrust” fostered by American security measures. “Transatlantic cooperation between the intelligence services is the only way forward, not the massive collection of data in general,” she said.
Australia is the only other country which has a similar program in place for visa-free travel. They currently charge $20 AUD for running the check.
Interesting factoid (from Business Standard): the program was to be called ETA [Electronic Travel Authorization] but became ESTA instead after Spanish officials expressed reservations because of the Basque separatist group also known as ETA.
Thanks to Dana for the tip!