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Biometric Screening and the Visa Waiver Program

Visa Waiver Program Biometrics

As part of a constant drive and an increasing sense of urgency to continually enhance travel security to the USA, we are seeing more and more discussion around using ‘biometrics’ in screening passengers traveling under the Visa Waiver Program.

Biometrics are already used effectively with people visiting the USA with visas, but of course when people travel with ESTA, under the Visa Waiver Program, the whole point of this system is that they do not need to apply for a visa.
So what are we talking about here? The term "biometrics" simply refers to metrics, or measurements, that are based on human characteristics. This concept already has a wide range of applications in modern society; just think about how many people can unlock their phones simply by using their finger print. As well as this, many technology companies around the world are creating ways to achieve similar things with facial recognition or iris recognition.
This is obviously impressive, and potentially very timesaving for simple day-to-day processes. Applying biometrics to things like banking and making payments adds an additional layer of security to processes that still have their security flaws, whereby the ability to reduce or even eliminate fraud would be revolutionary. But how would this be useful for something like the Visa Waiver Program?
Though this discussion has been going on for years, there are a couple of key factors that are making it such a relevant topic at the moment. On the one hand, the ability to develop and use the technology required for recording biometrics has improved drastically in a short period of time, meaning that the time and cost associated with it are greatly reduced. And on the other, the horrific terror attacks that the world has witnessed over the past years, months and even days call for all potential loopholes to be filled in when it comes to travel security.
Given that so many recent attacks have been carried out by homegrown terrorists, it begs the question as to whether they would be detected under current VWP safeguards. Essentially, the danger here is that such homegrown terrorists are already citizens of countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Program, and so the fact that their nationality may be considered safe in general is not enough to bring a degree of trust to the application. Indeed, the most recent attacks in London have since highlighted that red flags were in place but nothing was done to act on them. This does suggest that security could and should be improved around the world, and the desire to bring new technology to the Visa Waiver Program is incredibly logical in this regard.
With respect to the Visa Waiver Program itself, a report published last month highlighted how many visitors overstayed the 90-day trip limit associated with the ESTA during 2016. Given that this is a fundamental condition of the Visa Waiver Program, this is in fact another factor as to why the US Administration and the Department of Homeland Security are seeking ways to bring biometric screening into the program.
In practical terms, what would this entail? Well, one potential solution would be simply to record the biometric data of people applying for ESTA in advance. As you are probably aware, the current process for applying for ESTA is quick and easy; you fill out an online form, providing some personal details and answering a range of questions, after which you receive the status of your ESTA approval by email within 24 hours. One of the major appeals of applying for ESTA is the very fact that it can all be done online in such a short period of time. In this respect, the concept of bringing an element of biometric data recording into the equation would take away an element of ease, though probably not cost.
In order to record such biometric data, travelers wishing to apply for ESTA would first have to go to a US Consulate or Embassy in their home country, just like people applying for US visas have to do. But given that this does add an extra element of effort to the ESTA application, this would be something that applicants would only have to do once. This would mean that for all subsequent ESTA applications (remember, the ESTA only lasts for two years at a time), applicants would have the same, simple process as before.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the current ESTA application process doesn’t have a high level of security to it. The application process has changed and developed significantly since it was first introduced, and even in the past year additional layers have been added to it. The main strength of it is how applicants enter basic biographical information and their passport details, which are then checked against global law enforcement databases around the world before the application can be approved.
The incorporation of next-generation technology could mean that, in addition to the personal information provided in the ESTA application, incredibly reliable and secure information could also be collected. The biometrics we’re talking about would include fingerprints, iris scans, facial scans, etc., as well as an opportunity to personally conduct photo identification. In addition to the information included in the ESTA application form, this would lead to an even more comprehensive check against law enforcement databases around the planet.
In a global climate in which security is an ever-increasing threat and priority, there is a lot of backing for these ideas. Indeed, with a system that has not seen any major issues in this respect, it is simply a matter of continuing to allow it to work as safely and securely as it has until now, whilst responding to the potential holes that it could present.
The Visa Waiver Program is undoubtedly seen as a success in the USA, and its very existence gives US citizens the same reciprocal rights to travel to the VWP member countries without the need for a visa. It’s quite clear that nobody who has the potential to benefit from the scheme wants to see it come to an end, which is why it is so important to keep it as effective and secure as possible to ensure that it keeps serving this essential function in modern travel.
In the past year, pilot trials have already been developed to test biometric screening in airports in the USA, and a billion dollars has been allocated to develop a biometric exit program over the next decade. And so, as we will undoubtedly continue to see biometrics becoming more and more integrated with everyday security features, it only seems natural that we can expect it to be used more in international travel. It’s all an integral part of using advanced technology to benefit society in as many ways as it can.
However, for the time being, nothing has changed for citizens of the 38 Visa Waiver Program member countries wanting to travel to the USA with ESTA, and the conditions remain the same: the program allows such citizens to travel to the country for business or pleasure, for periods of up to 90 days at a time, and the ESTA remains valid for two years from the time of approval (or when the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first).
It’s very important to apply for a US visa if the characteristics of your trip do not correspond with the conditions of the VWP. If you are looking for work in the USA, taking a job or planning to move there, then a US visa is the only way you can legally go to and remain in the United States. It is also not possible to turn your ESTA into a visa if you decide you would like to stay longer than the 90-day limit after arrival; you can only apply for a US visa from outside of the country, and so even if you were to decide to stay on in the USA, you would need to return to your home country and follow the proper procedures for applying for a US visa from your nearest embassy or consulate.
The specificities of ESTA and VWP do change and develop periodically, and it seems very likely that biometric screening, or vetting, will make its way into the program soon enough. It is worth taking into consideration that any change made is always in the interest of safety and security, and of course we will be here to keep you informed of it all.

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.

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