Traveling to the United States just got more difficult, at least for people without Internet connections. As of January 12, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has made online registration with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization mandatory for visitors from many countries. The ESTA is a pre-flight background check designed to enhance border security: “By requiring travelers to register on-line before their journey, ESTA gives authorities more time to screen for threats and ensure that a traveler isn’t a known security risk. ESTA also helps us determine, in advance of travel, whether an individual is eligible for travel under the Visa Waiver Program,” writes Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

What is screened? A lot, according to the ESTA FAQ (pdf):

“The traveler must provide (in English) biographical data including name, birth date, and passport information. The traveler will also be required to answer VWP eligibility questions regarding communicable diseases, arrests, and convictions for certain crimes, and past history of visa revocation or deportation, among others.”

Travelers who have not registered online may be denied boarding of their flight or admission to the US.

The ESTA is part of the Visa Waiver Program, which allows Visa-less entry into the United States for up to 90 days to citizens of 35 countries.

There are already problems with ESTA, as dummy sites charging money for the registration have appeared. Ensuring that people have filled out the form before heading to the airport is sure to be a problem, too, unless airlines themselves step up and help with the process, at least initially.

By Mark Alvarez