Beginning today, visitors flying to the U.S. from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries (such as Britain, France, Australia and many others) must obtain approval prior to their arrival through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
How confusing. As an American citizen, I can only imagine what it must be like to visit this country as a foreign citizen. Beyond the acronyms, and as Tim Hughes of The BOOT points out, a seemingly contradictory name (one would think a “Visa Waiver Program” would indicate a streamlined approach not requiring prior registration), the new rules on registration are fairly simple and mainly involve submitting biographical, passport and travel details using the online application. The registration idea is not entirely new, the new ESTA just replaces the old paper-based program of green I-94W forms which used to be handed out on planes. Approved travelers can reenter the U.S. for up to two years without reapplying, and travelers no longer need to return a departure record at the end of their trip. Though you may be able to secure a last minute ESTA, the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Customs and Border Protection recommend applying at least three days before a trip.
Unfortunately, third parties are cashing in on the confusion the new program has caused by charging foreign travelers for their applications. Sources such as the Sunday Times and Sydney Morning Herald are reporting on official-looking sites that are charging up to $250 USD for what should be a free ESTA application. If you’re an eligible citizen of the VWP traveling to the U.S. soon, be sure to head straight to the official site, https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov, to get authorization before you travel.