Monday, January 12, 2009

New rules for the Visa Waiver program

Dozens of countries participate in the U.S. Visa Waiver program. Under that program, someone coming from a participating country--say, the United Kingdom--does not need a visa to come to America.

That program has been in place for years, but effective today, there's a new twist: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires anyone planning to travel under the Visa Waiver program to submit an electronic application to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) no fewer than 72 hours before the trip.

This is a huge change. Up until today, anyone traveling under the Visa Waiver program could fill out a green I-94 form while on his or her flight to the U.S. No more; show up today without a pre-approved ESTA authorization, and you'll be sent back.

The good news? Most ESTA authorizations are granted in about four seconds.

The bad news? If yours is rejected, it can take up to six weeks to get an appointment at a U.S. embassy to obtain a formal visa.

The really bad news? ESTA requirements apply even to those who are traveling to America only incidentally in transit to another country. Since so many flights bound for Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean include U.S. connections, this latest change is bound to affect quite a few people.

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