The Department of Homeland Security announced June 2 that it will soon require travelers to the United States from visa-exempt countries to register personal information online 72 hours before their trip.
The new process will apply to travelers who wish to come to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from 27 countries to travel visa-free in the U.S. for up to 90 days.
It is a response to the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, signed into law last August. The information submitted will be checked against government databases with the goal of improving border security.
The requirement will start as a voluntary measure Aug. 1 but is expected to become mandatory in January, immigration attorney James Nolan told GlobalAtlanta.
Mr. Nolan and others who often deal with the immigration issues question whether the security benefits of the new system will outweigh the possible negative impact on business and tourism in the U.S.
It “could do great damage to the U.S. image and business relationships without significantly increasing our security,” Mr. Nolan said.
He also criticized the proposed requirement that the registration must be completed at least 72 hours before a flight, saying it would be a significant hindrance for international businesspeople who react spontaneously to opportunities.
Once the system is mandatory, he said that failure to comply would mean the traveler would be barred from boarding a plane. “If you don’t do it, you don’t get on,” he added.
Mr. Nolan’s concerns echoed those of Swiss Ambassador Urs Ziswiler, who told GlobalAtlanta in September that he feared that the proposed electronic registration process would likely stoke anti-U.S. sentiment abroad.
During a visit to Atlanta to attend a meeting of all the Swiss chambers in the U.S. last year, Mr. Ziswiler said that business travelers, tourists and others could be inconvenienced by the measure, which is officially called the Approved Electronic System Travel Authorization, or ESTA.
“I think it is particularly difficult for people who are not used to using laptops or elderly people who want to visit their kids or their fellow families (in the U.S.),” he said at the time. “Older people have more money to travel so it’s also … bad for the American economy.”
Mr. Nolan pointed to the case of his mother-in-law, an elderly Japanese woman who speaks no English. “She’s never used a computer; how is she going to do this?” he said.
According to the department’s announcement, the Web site is to be published in English with other languages available in October. There is currently no announced fee to register.
The registration will be valid for a two-year period.
The requirement is to apply to anyone coming to the U.S. without a visa: tourists, businesspeople coming for trips or conferences, students without U.S. student visa stamps, family members visiting relatives and artists coming to see an opening or participating in an event.