I am presently at MIT for the Emergent Gravity Conference, a trip that was as smoothly as could be, partly because I didn't bother to hand in my I-94 when I left California only a week earlier. Nevertheless, complains about travel to the USA always makes a good topic at any conference, the best is trying to avoid the country as far as possible since even transit only is an extremely annoying procedure.
Since it occurred to me many people don't seem to know about improvements to the pleasures of travel to and through the USA, here is an update on the visa waiver program (VWP). (Your country is participating in the visa waiver program if you have usually filled out a green form with your passport information, travel dates and so on - this is the I-94W, the Visa Waiver Arrival-Departure Record.)
Effective January 12, 2009, all VWP travelers will be required to obtain an electronic travel authorization prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea to the U.S. under the VWP.
It's called the "Electronic System for Travel Authorization" (ESTA) and you find more information on this website and is supposed to work as follows:
Log onto the ESTA Web site and complete an on-line application in English. Travelers are encouraged to apply early. The web-based system will prompt you to answer basic biographical and eligibility questions typically requested on a paper I-94W form.
Applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel, however, the Department of Homeland Security recommends that applications be submitted no less than 72 hours prior to travel.
So say good bye to last minute trips.
After January 12, 2009, VWP travelers who do not apply for and receive travel authorization via ESTA prior to travel may be denied boarding, experience delayed processing or be denied admission at a U.S. port of entry.
That's the bad news. The good news is that an approved travel authorization is valid for up to two years, or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever comes first (the I-94 was so far good for 90 days only), and valid for multiple entries into the U.S. (as previously).
What stuns me about this is that US officials seem to assume everybody has the possibility to access that website in a timely manner.