On August 6, 2010, in accordance with the requirements of the Travel Promotion Act (TPA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced an interim final rule establishing a fee for the use of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).  The total fee, which goes into effect on September 8, 2010, is $14. Ten dollars will go towards funding the activities of the Corporation for Travel Promotion that is being created under the framework of the TPA. The remainder will be used by CBP to operate and maintain the system.

An approved ESTA is required for all individuals traveling under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). ESTA approvals are generally valid for multiple entries into the United States for up to two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first.  (Note: travelers who apply for ESTA approvals before September 8 can avoid the $14 fee, as CBP does not require the individual to have immediate travel plans to apply.)

Leaving aside whether the fee will have its intended effect of boosting tourism, the successful implementation of ESTA is a critical security feature of the modernized VWP.  It provides DHS with the capability to conduct both advance and recurrent vetting of individual VWP travelers against appropriate law enforcement and security databases. It therefore helps the Department determine whether any risk exists in permitted travel to the United States. Currently, no airline will permit a VWP traveler to board if he or she does not have an approved ESTA. As a result, the ESTA compliance rate has reached 99 percent. In short, ESTA has enhanced the security of the United States.

The VWP advances security in other ways as well. VWP participants are required to be close partners in security and law enforcement matters. In a networked world, efforts to guard against terrorism while enhancing travel and trade depend upon the type of close collaboration and cooperation that is the hallmark of the VWP. By insisting on high standards for information sharing, border security, and travel documents, the VWP helps to prevent travel by terrorists and transnational criminals.

The VWP also has significant public diplomacy and economic benefits. Since its inception, it has fostered better relations between the United States and participating countries. Increasing the flow of business people and tourists through open and secure travel provides a foundation on which close foreign policy, commercial and cultural ties can flourish.

By contrast, the often cumbersome and expensive visa process can impede significant personal as well as commercial exchange. Large numbers of potential visitors – from Latin America, for example – may be discouraged from traveling to the United States by this process. Similarly, Americans may be discouraged from visiting Latin American countries because of the reciprocal visa requirements imposed on them.

VWP designation decisions are made on a country-by-country basis and each country must qualify on its own merits. Nevertheless, interested countries from Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East should consider joining together to press their respective cases for inclusion in the program. Such a coalition – comprised of both governments and interested business groups, such as chambers of commerce – could present a compelling argument on security, economic and public diplomacy grounds for an expanded VWP.