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Rebranding the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA)

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The UK, along with 37 other countries, already benefit from membership of the US Visa Waiver Programme. This programme allows their citizens to apply for a visa waiver known as ‘ESTA’, with which they can travel to the USA for work or leisure, for up to 90 days at a time. This is a much cheaper and faster alternative to traditional US visas. Though the programme is well-established, there is currently a large effort to revamp and rebrand it, including a change of name.

The JOLT Act 2019 proposes to rename the Visa Waiver Programme as the “Secure Travel Partnership Programme”, in an effort to represent the mutual benefits shared by the U.S. and it’s partner countries, create travel industry jobs, boost tourism, and update ‘outdated’ travel authorisation laws. The bill, which is being put forward again this year with new provisions since the last attempt, would also allow for the programme to be expanded to offer better US travel security, by promoting intelligence sharing and modernising the current travel infrastructure.

Because it is difficult to ensure that VWP (Visa Waiver Programme) countries equally adhere to US security standards, the JOLT Act (Jobs Originating through Launching Travel) has been suggested in part to ensure the proper enforcement of some security requirements that were previously considered discretionary. Some of the new obligatory requirements would be the following:

Maintain the same level of security standards in all airports
Help to maintain an effective air marshal program
Ensure the same level of security standards when issuing passports and any other travel documents
Collaborate with US initiatives toward combating terrorism

The potential rebranding of the Visa Waiver Programme has other objectives as well, such as boosting tourism and travel into the USA. The USA has long been a hugely popular travel destination around the world, and the potential name change is seen as a more accurate depiction of what the programme is and what it stands for; establishing a gold standard for international travel vetting, facilitating travel for citizens of member countries, and maintaining security as the fundamental priority of the programme.

Some European Union member countries are not currently part of the ESTA qualifying countries, namely Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus. The European Commission said in a statement: “The United States and the European Union agreed on the importance of advancing towards reciprocal visa-free travel under their respective legal frameworks and, following the most recent tripartite meeting on visa reciprocity, welcomed the progress of the five concerned member states towards meeting the statutory requirements of the visa waiver programme.”

In this context, and as part of the revamp, the US Travel Association intends to expand the programme to these non-visa-exempt European countries, as well as Brazil, Argentina, and Israel. Some of these economies are booming, and travel into the US from their citizens would be as mutually beneficial as it is for the other countries already participating in the programme. Expanding the Visa Waiver Programme (or Security Travel Partnership) would facilitate travel procedures for many potential tourists who currently still must apply for traditional US visas.

Tourism officials say that travellers from abroad are coveted because, compared to the average domestic American tourist, they spend up to four times more per visit. In a bilateral effort, tourism leaders in the US are requesting that lawmakers intensify funding for Brand USA, the organisation responsible for marketing the United States as a premier travel destination. Brand USA, launched in 2011, is funded by both private donations and fees charged to international visitors applying for travel authorisation. In the last couple of years, Brand USA has also undergone some major changes, and many innovative new initiatives are ongoing to promote the USA as an attractive travel destination. Indeed, collaborations with artists and musicians have already played a major role in showcasing some of the USA’s remarkable but less visited spots to an international audience.

Of course, the Visa Waiver Programme does not only apply to tourists; it also facilitates travel for many business travellers each year. Though this is not the same as working in the USA, it does mean that citizens from VWP member countries can easily travel to the USA for meetings, trade shows, conferences, etc. Thus, in this respect, it is of a significant mutual benefit to make business travel into the USA as easy as possible.

If you are travelling to the US from the UK, you will most likely be eligible to travel to America without a visa under this Visa Waiver Programme, even after it potentially becomes the Security Travel Partnership. The ESTA, Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, is the form of travel authorisation offered to travellers under the programme and would unlikely undergo any major changes as a result of the JOLT Act being implemented.

Travellers should apply for their ESTA in advance to ensure a smooth, pleasant, entry into the USA. ESTA authorisation is generally approved within 24 hours of the application being submitted, and most often within minutes. Nevertheless, it is still wise to apply as soon as you know you will be travelling. This means that, even in the unlikely event that your ESTA application is rejected, you will still have allowed yourself time to apply for the corresponding US visa. 

If you are travelling from the UK or another Visa Waiver Programme member country, it is easier to apply for an ESTA and waive the need for a visa. The visa waiver is meant for any traveller coming to the USA, either for leisure or business, if they are not staying longer than 90 days at a time. The ESTA can also be used for other select purposes, such as travelling to the USA to undergo a short-term medical procedure, or short-term non-academic study courses; of course, in both cases, the length of travel cannot exceed 90 days.

Once your ESTA has been approved by the American authorities (a process that takes place entirely online), you will be able to travel to any US location as frequently as you want during the following two years. However, if your passport expires during this two-year period, the ESTA associated with it will also expire, as ESTA applications are bound to passports and not to individuals. You may of course apply for another ESTA online just as easily when it expires.

One final thing to clarify in terms of the validity period of the ESTA is that the 90-day limit refers only to the number of days spent in the USA during any single trip. This means that, throughout the two-year validity period of the ESTA itself (or until your passport expires, whichever comes first), you could feasibly make multiple trips to the USA that, when combined, exceed 90 days. Nevertheless, if any of your trips do surpass this 90-day ‘clock’, it is highly likely that you would not be granted re-entry into the USA the next time you travelled with your ESTA. For this reason, if there is any possibility that you will need to spend longer than 90 days in the USA, you should apply for a visa instead. Once you are in the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme, there is no way to extend it or apply for a visa without leaving the country.

It is still to be seen whether the Jolt ACT will be implemented, resulting in the Visa Waiver Programme becoming the Security Travel Partnership. However, in any case, we can certainly expect a few changes to the programme in the coming years, as it has evolved constantly since it was created. Security continues to be a fundamental focus of the programme, and so stronger vetting may well make its way into the process, whilst both the USA and the member countries of the programme are naturally keen to boost trade possibilities and tourism, which is vastly facilitated as a result of ESTA. All in all, developments of the Visa Waiver Programme are always designed to facilitate the process and maintain optimum security standards.

If you’re travelling to the USA this summer, be sure to get your ESTA travel authorisation in plenty of time, so that you can get on with the adventure planning!

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.