U.S. to Pilot Internet Travel Authorization Scheme
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States will launch a pilot scheme on Friday which will require travelers covered by its visa waiver program to get prior Internet authorization before boarding flights to America.
U.S. officials outlining the Electronic System for Travel authorization (ESTA) denied it would amount to reintroduction of visas -- a concern voiced in the European Union -- even though fees might be charged for the process in future.
"The ESTA is not a visa," Jackie Bednarz, attache for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told a news briefing in Brussels on Monday. "It's very different in our minds."
She said a pilot program for the system would be launched on August 1 and electronic authorization will be a requirement for all citizens covered by the visa waiver program from January 12.
The system will require travelers to complete an online application form via the website esta.cbp.dhs.gov answering questions they must currently respond to on paper forms aboard flights or ships bound for the United States.
These include whether or not a passenger has a communicable disease, a physical or mental disorder, or abuses drugs, or has been convicted of certain criminal offences, or been involved in espionage, terrorism or genocide.
A spokesman for the European Commission, the executive body of the 27-nation European Union, said it would have to assess whether or not the program was tantamount to a visa once the new regulations were formally published.
"We'll have to see how it works and exactly what the measures will be," Michele Cercone said.
FRICTION WITH EU
The scheme is being launched at a time of friction over visas between Brussels and Washington.
Currently only 15 EU states are covered by the visa waiver program. It does not apply to 11 of the 12 mostly ex-communist countries that joined the 27-member bloc in 2004 and 2007, or to older member Greece.
The European Commission said last week it would propose forcing U.S. diplomats to get visas to travel to the European Union 2009 unless Washington moves toward granting citizens of all EU states visa-free entry by the end of the year.
The United States has said it plans to allow some more EU states to join its visa-free program this year and Bednarz said U.S. authorities believed introduction of the new system should make it easier to include more EU countries.
She said the system would help identify travelers who were not authorized to travel to the United States before they reached the country and had to be turned back.
While U.S. authorities recommended applications be submitted 72 hours before travel, in most cases authorization -- required to enable a passenger to check in -- would be virtually instantaneous and valid for two years for multiple journeys.
Bednartz said there would be no fee, although this did had Congressional authorization. "In the future there maybe a fee," she said, without elaborating.
Electronic authorization will be required for sea and air travel, but not for entry via land borders such as from Canada.
Twenty-seven countries are currently covered by the U.S. visa waiver program.
Details of the new electronic program are available on www.cbp.gov/travel.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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