ESTA is a web-based data collection system, initially launched by the Department of Homeland Security in August 2008, that specifies the primary eligibility for visitors without a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program, before traveling to the United States.
According to recent Department of Homeland Security data, more than 1.2 million ESTA requests have been received, and more than 98% of applicants have been approved. DHS also states that it will follow a “reasonable approach” for travelers who have not received an ESTA-approved travel permit, and will continue to conduct a large-scale advertising campaign throughout 2009.
However, non-ESTA approved travelers are advised to refuse to allow them to board the aircraft or be subject to late processing or refuse to allow them to enter the U.S. port of entry.
Citizens or citizens of the following countries are currently eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP program: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States Kingdom.
Eight of these countries joined the Visa Waiver Program in 2008, and their citizens and citizens have been required to comply with the evaluation since their appointment as participants in the Visa Waiver Program: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Malta.
There was some degree of confusion as to when and how the ESTA was implemented. In short, ESTA only applies to foreign nationals (who are not citizens of the United States) who are entitled to travel to the United States according to the terms and conditions of the Visa Waiver Program, without obtaining a visa, green card, or other government issued permit.
Anyone who needs a visa or already has a visa does not need to complete the ESTA process before traveling to the United States. Anyone who completes a WHITE I-94 upon arrival in the United States, does not participate in the ESTA. On the other hand, anyone who usually completes a GREEN I-94W on arrival in the United States must now complete an ESTA.
While ESTA is finally set up to completely phase out I-94W paper cards, the current CBP advice and recommendation is to complete BOTH and ESTA online and inspection I-94W paper card. It is also recommended that an ESTA traveler bring a paper copy of their ESTA application response in order to keep a record of their ESTA order number.
The ESTA App website is available in multiple languages and helps guide travelers through the Visa Waiver Program through the application process.