Friday, July 18, 2008

Traveler Fatigue?

Are you among the many travelers who have endured the long lines at airport security checkpoints just for the opportunity to take off your shoes and empty your pockets under the suspicious glare of a security agent? Did you lose your new bottle of shampoo because it was .5 ounces over the 3 ounce limit for liquids – or was it because it was not placed inside a clear 1 quart sealable plastic bag?

Like most people in this ‘new’ age of air travel, you have probably grown accustomed to – and weary of– the new security measures implemented to safeguard national security via air travel. If you travel overseas frequently, you have probably also experienced that slight moment of anxiety when you approach the Immigration Customs and Border Patrol officer upon returning to the U.S. hoping that your Passport and customs declaration form are in proper order. But have you considered what foreign travelers encounter when they try to visit the U.S.? For our friends who arrive as citizens from other countries, the experience can be even more apprehensive.

If you are simply curious about the process foreign travelers undergo when coming to our country, I suggest that you read on; however, if you have a business colleague, manager or family member from overseas that travels to the U.S., you need to be aware of changes that affect their future travel to the U.S. Beginning August 1, 2008, many of these foreign travelers will be required to engage in another level of security.

I am frequently asked if you need a visa to get into this country. The answer, of course, is complicated, but as a general matter, the answer is: “it depends”. If you have colleagues, friends or family from certain countries who travel to the U.S. and do not intend to stay longer than 90 days, they may enter under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’ (‘VWP’). Countries such as France, Germany, Japan and The United Kingdom (and others) have entered into Memoranda of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to permit their citizens to enter for a limited time without having to procure a visa beforehand.

Here’s how the system works: Under present policy, the foreign traveler simply purchases her airline ticket and the air carrier submits her name into an Advance Passenger Information System (‘APIS’) database to check for any criminal or terrorist ties before giving a Boarding Pass. Once a Visa-Waiver passenger is on the plane, she is given a ‘Form I-94W’ to complete and submit to the immigration officer at the U.S. airport, along with an unexpired passport from one of the ‘Visa-waiver’ countries. At that time, the visitor undertakes a biometrics exam (fingerprint scan, etc.) under a program called ‘US-VISIT’, before being allowed entry into the U.S.

Under the new interim final rule published by the Department of Homeland Security on June 10, 2008, any foreign visitor hoping to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program must first submit an online questionnaire at in advance of her travel.

Under this new program called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, (‘ESTA’), the passenger will either be notified beforehand that authorization is ‘Granted’, that it is ‘Pending’ or that authorization is ‘Not Granted’. If she does not receive authorization, she will not be permitted to board the plane. In addition, the ESTA authorization will take the place of the I-94 card presently distributed in flight.

The good news is that there is no cost for the passenger to submit her authorization request and, once authorized, it is good for two years – or until her Passport expires – whichever first occurs. Thus, a Visa Waiver traveler will not have to submit a request each time she travels during the validity period, but she will need to update – online - any travel plans or itineraries that change for each trip.

The program becomes operational on August 1st, 2008 in English, and then it should be available in multiple languages sometime around October. It is expected to be fully implemented by January 12, 2009 – at which time every citizen from a Visa-Waiver country will be required to plan in advance of her travel to the U.S. by undergoing this preliminary screening process.

So, if you know someone who regularly comes to the U.S. on simply a passport and an I-94 card, make sure that you make them aware of these new travel regulations before making plans or appointments here in the U.S.

If you have any stories or suggestions to share about your international travel, we would love to hear them – and you can help us all make our travel a little easier.

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