Ever since the horrifying events of 9/11, the United States of America and, indeed, the rest of the western world, have been in an almost permanent high-security status. The logistics are excruciatingly complex and the US has developed layers of screening and advance protections to minimise – as much as conceivably possible – the potential risks posed by both those visiting as tourists and those engaged in business.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system designed to determine an individual’s eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP). Apart from eligibility, the ESTA process also ensures that any such travel to the US does not pose any law enforcement or other security risk.
The VWP is administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and enables eligible citizens or nationals from accepted countries to travel to the US as tourists or on business. They may stay for 90 days or less without needing a visa.
While everyone is familiar with the stringent security considerations now in force regarding entry to the USA, ESTA effectively constitutes another layer of security screening. However, an ESTA application is NOT for a visa, as it functions as a security screening mechanism for the VWP – which in itself is uniquely established for time-limited stays that do not require a visa.
Basically, all nationals or citizens of countries eligible for the VWP who plan to visit the USA temporarily for business or pleasure must receive prior authorisation through an ESTA application before they even board a US-bound aircraft or sea vessel in their country of origin or departure.
In addition, all accompanied and unaccompanied children – regardless of age – are required to obtain an independent ESTA. This can be applied for on their behalf by a third party, such as a relative or a travel agent.
Application data remains active throughout the duration that an ESTA is valid – generally two years – or until the traveller’s passport expires, whichever comes first. The information is kept for a further year by the DHS and then the data is archived for 12 years, allowing easy retrieval for the purposes of law enforcement, national security or investigatory purposes. Access to the archived information is limited to a restricted number of officials. It is worth noting, however, that once ESTA authorisation has been given and a traveller on VWP has been admitted, the admission record alone will be maintained for 75 years in order to facilitate such matters as applications for benefits related to eventual immigration or other law enforcement purposes.
In terms of access, information submitted for an ESTA is subject to the same strict privacy provisions and protocols as those for similar traveller-screening procedures. Furthermore, it is on a strictly professional, need-to-know basis. Indeed, the US government deploys an impressive range of technology designed to prevent unauthorised access to all data entered and stored.
Inevitably, information provided to and collected and stored in ESTA databases may be used by other elements in the DHS, although, again, on a strictly need-to-know basis. In cases where an ESTA application has been denied, for example, then the Department of State (DOS) consular officials may be granted access in order to determine whether, nonetheless, a visa could be issued.
Access may also be given to appropriate federal, state, local, tribe and foreign government agencies as well as assisting those responsible for investigating or prosecuting violations of a wide range of legal statutes, rules, regulations, licenses and so forth, where the DHS feels that the sharing of information would enhance the enforcement of civil or criminal law. In the current climate of heightened sensitivities, information may be shared to assist anti-terrorist operations or intelligence gathering covering a range of national, international or transnational security issues or crimes.
For the most part, the DHS uses a traveller’s application data simply to screen them for the purposes of authorisation to travel under the VWP. However, should any information arise during screening that identifies an individual suspected of being – or known to be – a violator of national or international law or any other persons of concern, that information will be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement, national security and, where relevant, counter-terrorism agency.