Australians travelling to the US for business or pleasure have long been able to use the visa waiver program to enter the country without requiring a visa, but from next January you'll need to fill out a form online in advance rather than completing documentation in flight. What do the new rules mean and how can you make sure you don't get caught out?The Visa Waiver Program allows residents of 27 countries (including Australia) to travel to the United States without needing to apply for a visa in advance. Historically, this has meant filling in a green I-94W form (providing details on your travel plans and information on any criminal history), which is normally handed out in flight. The new authorisation system (which has been trialled since August) replaces the paper form filled in on the plane with one that you fill in online in advance of your trip. As the official US Consulate site in Australia explains:
Once the electronic system becomes mandatory, on January 12, 2009, all travelers entering the United States for temporary business or pleasure under the VWP will need to receive an electronic travel authorization prior to boarding a U.S.-bound airplane or cruise ship.
The online form has to be filled in at least 72 hours before departure (the US Consulate recommends doing so as soon as you book your flight). In practice, if you show up at an airport and you don't have an electronic travel authorisation, which airlines will be able to check via your passport, you won't be allowed to board the flight. However, once you have received an authorisation, it remains valid for two years (unless you change name or gender, or get issued with a new passport). One disturbing trend is that airlines don't seem to be going out of their way to promote the changed approach. A recent check of major airline sites by the Sydney Morning Herald found that three had out of date information, and one (unnamed) airline offered no information at all. The authorisation site is at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/. It pops up some fairly scary security warnings, but it's an essential step if you're planning on travelling to the US. Indeed, a travel authorisation is needed even if you are only travelling through the United States to get to another destination -- unlike most of the world, there's no provision for 'transit' passengers to remain in an airport without clearing immigration. You don't need one, however, if you have an actual visa for visiting the US in your passport (which applies to people visiting for longer than 90 days, journalists, people with drink driving convictions and a few other categories). The Department of Homeland Security has a comprehensive FAQ on visa waiver issues. Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman doesn't get to use the US visa waiver program because he's a journalist, though that means even more forms to fill in initially. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.