One of the most important programs being developed by the Department of Homeland Security as the Chertoff regime departs is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Individuals traveling under the Visa Waiver Program, who have not been interviewed by a consular official, will be required to submit a short form with biographical information similar to that provided on the I-94 form currently used BEFORE traveling to the U.S. For nationals of countries about to be admitted to the VWP (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea), an ESTA will be required beginning November 17 of this year. For the 27 legacy VWP countries (United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore, etc.), ESTA will be required beginning January 12, 2009. Recognizing that not all travelers will learn of the new requirement and that not all air carriers have built IT connections to check ESTA approvals before boarding, U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans a “soft” enforcement regime for at least several months as the program becomes live. Of course, ESTA is just one layer in our security apparatus that also includes passenger reviewed by CBP at the National Targeting Center and US-VISIT biometrics checks.
While ESTA certainly needs a more robust communications plan and more options beyond the CBP website to have one submitted, over the long-haul it is a good idea. Having sleepy airline passengers fumbling around with green forms and sharing pens in mid-air is not exactly the model of 21st Century border enforcement. For the very occasional applicant who is not eligible to enter under the VWP because of a prior visa overstay or crime, it is obviously much more convenient to learn such information before paying for an expensive airline ticket and traveling for 14 hours. And of course, ESTA is a legal requirement of the valuable VWP expansion. Currently, applying for an ESTA is free and takes just a few minutes – successful applications are good for multiple trips for 2 years.
However, no good deed goes unpunished. Creative Internet marketers have capitalized on the uncertainty around ESTA to offer ESTA application services for the cool price $249.95. Their website, www.esta.us, looks a lot like an official government website and the .us domain name may confuse people who don’t follow ICAAN news releases. Even worse, the site “sells” ESTA information kits for $49.95 even though such information is available for free, in 14 languages, on the CBP website. I am told DHS lawyers are examining whether there are any legal options to shut the site down.
Now, some businesses may end up charging their customers to submit an ESTA on their behalf. In fact, DHS would like airlines, online reservation companies and travel agents to do so to make ESTA more of a normal part of the travel-booking process. But, it is certain that such a business wouldn’t charge $250 for that service. It is also possible that Congress may mandate an ESTA fee to cover the cost of the system, and possibly also to fund a new travel promotion campaign. But at least those fees are related to the government’s legitimate role in providing reasonable services for reasonable fees. The www.esta.us website is perhaps a classic example of the American ability to squeeze a dollar out of a sucker, but those involved with serious security programs like ESTA should spread the word that it is an unhelpful and unnecessary development which can only damage our efforts to attract and welcome legitimate international visitors.