Inside Travel: Last-minute trips outlawed by new US travel red tape

Do you want to visit the US without a visa – and without giving notice of your intentions? Then be spontaneous today or tomorrow, because from Monday a new and permanent hurdle will stand in the way of your travel plans.

What is changing?

For more than 20 years, the vast majority of British visitors to America have entered the US under the Visa Waiver Program. This involves filling in a green form, code name I-94W, while on board the flight to America. But from Monday 12 January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is introducing a new set of rules.

The DHS wants to make sure that prospective visitors are scrutinised by a range of US security agencies before they are allowed to board a plane to America. So every traveller hoping to enter without a visa must enrol at least three days in advance through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (Esta). The only acceptable method of applying for permission to travel to the US will be online.

Why the new rules?

"Getting this information in advance enables our frontline personnel to determine whether a visa-free traveller presents a threat before boarding an aircraft," says Michael Chertoff, the outgoing US Secretary of Homeland Security. "Esta is one way that we are trying to make travel to the United States even easier," adds the US ambassador to Britain, Robert Tuttle.

Some have suggested that the new system is a response to the perceived growth of religious extremism in European countries, whose citizens are able to access the US more easily.

But many in the travel industry are furious about the extra complexity Esta will involve. Travel industry insiders predict much confusion in the early stages of the Esta scheme, particularly for transit passengers. (Even if you are only changing planes in America, you will still need to register).

It is believed that some leniency will be granted in the first few weeks, but there is no guarantee of this.

Where do I start?

Tap "Esta" into a well-known search engine, and the first entry is for a website called – the front page for a commercial enterprise, seeking to profit from confusion about the new system by charging a $50 fee for a "Travel Authorization Application Guide". Do not pay any fee; initially, the DHS is not charging for the application procedure, but there is no guarantee that it will stay this way. The official government site has a long address, so The Independent Traveller has constructed a shorter one:

What information must I provide?

Tourists and business travellers must provide "the biographical and eligibility information currently required on the paper I-94W form". This includes place and date of birth and passport data, plus a lot of trip-specific information, ranging from the flight number to the address where you will be staying. You must also confirm an absence from communicable diseases and that you are not "seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities", among other things.

I can't book flights or a hotel until I know I'll be let in

Plenty of prospective travellers have spotted this "Catch 22". The US Embassy in London says that you can apply without knowing every detail of your itinerary, and simply revisit your online file when your plans are settled.

What are my chances?

The vast majority of applicants are granted permission to board an aircraft to the US. "So far, 99.6 per cent of those registering have been approved, most within four seconds," says the US Embassy. The four in 1,000 turned down are either told "Travel Not Authorized" or "Authorization pending" and asked some more questions.

Successful applicants are granted permission to board a plane. However, the Embassy stresses "an approved Esta is not a guarantee of admissibility to the United States at a port of entry".

When should I apply?

At least three days in advance, but no longer than two years ahead. Once permission has been granted, you can make further trips by updating the travel information on your application.

Exceptions will be made for late applications from people who have to make last-minute journeys for pressing personal reasons.

Do I still fill in a form on the plane?

Yes, though airlines are working with the US authorities to remove this requirement.

What happens to my personal data?

US authorities will retain the information for 15 years.

What about kids?

The new rule applies equally to children and babies.

I have a US visa

Journalists, convicted criminals and such like who have valid visas are in luck: they need not register, and they can travel at short notice.

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