Potential Improvements for the ESTA

Published on: May 07, 2020, Last Edited: May 08, 2020 | Tags: ESTA Improvements, ESTA Application, ESTA Processing

The ESTA has been around for over a decade. During this period, the system has undergone a number of changes which have enhanced its security, usability and accessibility. Notably, there have been recent changes to the layout of the form. For example, it underwent a redesign to a be mobile responsive website, with additional security related questions.

However, some changes have not been well received by users. For example, the reduction in the number of instant ESTA approvals has resulted in travel disruptions for people applying last-minute. This article reviews the top eight suggested improvements that have been proposed by users of the ESTA system over the past few years as well as discusses the likelihood of such improvements being implemented by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

CBP should provide reasons on ESTA denials

As of 2020, CBP does not provide any confirmation on reasons why an ESTA has been denied. Users are left to speculate on the reasons, from previous criminal conviction history, to making mistakes on their application to even blaming identity theft or a case of mistaken identity. Not having any information on the reasons of denial can make some applicants feel helpless with how to ever visit the United States. CBP could provide at least a generic reason why a user’s application was denied. This information may give confidence to denied ESTA applicants to submit a U.S. visa application as an alternative form of travel authorization. Especially if the reasons can be justified during an embassy interview for a U.S. visa.

Due to potential disclosure of the inter-workings of the databases, processes or technology utilized by the ESTA, it is unlikely CBP will disclose reasons of refusals. Furthermore, providing a reason for refusal would be inappropriate considering the ESTA is not a visa. ESTA is a visa waiver whereby applicants surrender rights, typically afforded to visa applicants, for the added convenience of applying for an online travel authorization. Thus, to CBP, providing a reason of refusal would connote a responsibility on their part to inform applicants, which is not what they are bound to provide.

Re-introduce instant ESTA approvals for the majority of applicants

Prior to 2018, instant approvals meant travelers received their approved ESTA within minutes of applying. However, now only a minority of travelers have their ESTA applications instantly approved. After application submission, a majority of ESTA applicants complain their ESTA takes hours to process. In many cases, applications can take up to 72 hours to process.

Travelers can attribute this increase in processing time due to additional security checks being conducted on applicants. This cannot be deemed as a negative for safety and security reasons. Travelers would have liked to retain the convenience of having their ESTA applications instantly processed. As there is a great value in being able to submit last-minute applications without facing disruption to travel plans. However, this is no longer reality as safety and security are of higher priority.

Reduce the number of questions on the application form

Removing the number of ESTA questions such as employment, address or other information will reduce the applicant disruption. As a result, there should be a reduction in the overall time needed to submit an application. This will lead to a greater number of applications submitted through ESTA.

However, every required field on the application form is continually assessed for its value in helping CBP evaluate ongoing immigration and security risks to the United States. Thus, it is unlikely any of the existing fields on the ESTA application will be removed.

Add more ESTA eligible countries

The conditions of joining the Visa Waiver Program have not changed significantly through the years the program has been in existence. The United States strictly adheres to its standards when determining which countries should join. The most recent addition to the VWP eligible countries was Poland in November 2019. Before Poland, Chile was the second most recent country to join in 2014.

It is unlikely the United States will soon add more countries to the list of participating VWP countries. The COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions may also lead to economic shocks to aspiring countries who may have short or long impacts on their prospects of joining the VWP due to increased uncertainty.

Increase the period of permitted stays

Approved travelers can use the ESTA to stay in the United States for visits of up to 90 days. However, VWP eligible travelers wishing to stay longer will need to apply for a U.S. B2 tourist visa or B1 business visa, which are both commonly referred to as visitor visas.

It is unlikely the period of stay will be increased from 90 days for the ESTA. If users wish to stay beyond a continuous period of 90 days, a visitor visa would be suitable for their needs.

Increase the ESTA duration

Currently, an approved ESTA is valid for two years from the date of issue, or until the date of passport expiry. The earlier of either event is taken to be the date of expiry. Other electronic travel authorizations such as the Canada eTA and newly established European ETIAS, will give travelers a period of 5 years on an approved travel authorization. The increased authorized period of travel would reduce the burden of time spent reapplying as well as reduce associated costs for applicants.

Considering CBP continually runs security checks on approved ESTA authorizations, it is not foreseen increasing the duration of the ESTA beyond two years will have adverse security consequences. However, CBP revenues will be impacted if the number of yearly ESTA applications drops due to the increased duration of approvals. Since the monetary implications are substantial for the U.S. government, it is unlikely the ESTA period of duration will be increased unless it is done alongside an increase in the application fee.

Allow users to pre-fill a new ESTA application based the data of an expired application

A time saving feature for many users would be the ability to reapply for an ESTA using their previous application information. The justification is that the information for many applicants is unlikely to have changed between applications. Thus, if the ESTA system had a feature for users to quickly pre-fill their new application forms, based on the information from a previous ESTA approval, then it would expedite the application process. The system would need to validate the user by requiring them to provide details of their previous authorization or passport number to confirm their identify.

This feature would be a valuable time saver especially on tedious parts of the application such as personal, address, and employment information fields. However, it may be by design that CBP does not allow applications to be auto-populated. It may be for security purposes that applicants need to fill and confirm their data for every submitted ESTA application.

Provide clarity on the number of permitted entry/exits

One of the more confusing aspects of traveling on an ESTA is regarding the number of permitted entries into the U.S. Although CBP stipulates there are no set limits, travelers should be mindful of not showing indication of using the VWP as a means of living illegally in the United States.

Frequent, short trips to the United States within a short timeframe can have adverse consequences on future ESTA or visa applications, especially if a traveler is close to overstaying or has overstayed. Thus, CBP could provide travelers with an email notification when they are likely to overstay on their ESTA.

Conclusion

Any improvement of the ESTA would need to enhance or have no impact on security screening, in addition to providing the same or increased level of revenue for CBP. Improvements, similar to those proposed above, are likely regularly being assessed by CBP. However, of the improvements examined, it is likely that only a few would be considered by CBP. Hopefully, at least some improvements will be implemented sooner rather than later for distressed or aggravated travelers.

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