British travellers hoping to visit the US will face yet another bureaucratic obstacle next year, under new laws due from the country's Department of Homeland Security.
Currently, British citizens travelling to the US are asked to provide details about themselves on a green form handed out during their flight. If accepted on arrival, this allows them to enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days. But from 12 January next year, visitors will be required to submit the same information online at least three days before they travel.
The new rules make it compulsory for short-term visitors to the US to register via the website of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before boarding an aircraft. The site officially opens on 1 August, with potential travellers being encouraged to sign up as soon as possible. The revamped system will affect nations participating in the visa waiver program, which gives citizens from 27 countries the right to remain in the US for short periods of time without a visa. In the past financial year, more than 15 million people from these countries travelled to America under this banner.
Although filling in an electronic form ahead of time will be viewed as an inconvenience by many – notably business travellers who often have to fly at short notice – it is hoped the new system will increase security on US-bound planes by highlighting people with questionable backgrounds before they have left their home country. Currently, they would be able to fly to America, only to find themselves bundled on to the next plane home by customs officials.
Those who fly across the Atlantic on a regular basis do stand to benefit, since an approved application remains valid for up to two years, or until the traveller's passport expires. It also entitles the holder to multiple entries into the US during this period.
The emphasis of the new rules is on defending the country's borders against the threat of terrorism. It has also been 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. All of the information gathered will be held by US authorities for 15 years, and although exceptions can be made for those forced to make last-minute emergency journeys, these instances will be rare.
"Getting this information in advance enables our frontline personnel to determine whether a visa-free traveller presents a threat before boarding an aircraft or arriving on our shores," said Michael Chertoff, the US Secretary of Homeland Security. "It is a relatively simple and effective way to strengthen our security, and that of international travellers, while helping to preserve an important programme for key allies."
Although the system will do away with the need for green landing cards, British citizens hoping the new rules will also spell the end of rigorous questioning by customs officials may be disappointed. Under the system, successful applicants are granted permission to board a plane to America, but are not guaranteed entry into the country.