Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 1 News List

US unveils online travel permit for visa-free travelers

AFP , BRUSSELS

People who do not need a visa to fly to the US will have to answer questions about their health and criminal record under a new electronic system unveiled in Brussels on Monday.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), unveiled at the US embassy ahead of a pilot test starting on Friday, will be needed by all US-bound travelers from the 27 so-called visa waiver countries from Jan. 12.

It will oblige people those from nations including 15 EU states, Japan and Australia to supply details, preferably three days prior to travel, which they usually fill out on flight cards before arrival at US airports.

They will be asked about communicable diseases or mental and physical disorders, drug abuse, whether they have been arrested for certain crimes or involved in spying, terrorist activities or genocide.

The permit, which lasts for two years, can be filled out by the person concerned, a relative or a travel agent, with the authorization being granted, in most cases, almost immediately, US officials said.

The European Commission has said it is monitoring the scheme to make sure it is not a visa in disguise, and is due to hand down its verdict in November, around a month after the pilot program is set to end.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it targets passengers who pose a risk to security and that by providing details before they fly out, legitimate travelers cut the risk of being turned back once they arrive.

“The ESTA is not a visa,” said DHS security attache Jackie Bednarz, adding: “We do recognize that it is an additional step” which will take “a couple of minutes” to complete.

“We think the ESTA will clearly help those persons who have any kind of a travel problem that is not known,” she said.

Seeking ESTA authorization, which will be posted on the DHS Web site, is currently free, but Bednarz said that could change.

“In the future, there may be a fee,” she said, but declined to speculate about when or why.

She said entry could be refused for reasons ranging from a criminal record to problems during a prior visit, such as overstaying a visa.

ESTA will also apply to people entering the US by ship, but is not needed if crossing a land border, by car for example.

As of Friday, ESTA forms can be found at esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

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