There has been a lot of talk about Donald Trump’s immigration policy ever since his election in 2016. The event itself surprised many, but if you happen to hold a document allowing you to travel to the USA or you plan to visit the country in the near future, you might be wondering what that means in practical terms and how it can affect your future trips. An unclearly worded tweet posted by a White House correspondent in January 2017 raised an avalanche of concerns and questions. The tweet stated that the newly elected US President was preparing to discontinue the Visa Waiver Program as a part of his attempt to reinforce national borders.
But don’t worry
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which admits citizens from 38 countries, including those from the UK, hasn’t changed. Under that program, which is designed to facilitate trips between many European countries and the US, eligible citizens can make a short-term visit to the States without having to request a visa. Holders of a valid British passport currently only need to fill out an online application, known as ESTA. ESTA, short for Electronic System for Travel Authorization, collects and pre-screens the data of prospective travelers from low-risk countries who wish to stay on American soil less than 90 days for the purpose of tourism and, with some restrictions, business as well. The system is fully automated and does not require applicants to sit face-to-face with an officer from the US embassy to receive a stamp of approval. It is also highly efficient and provides an answer within 72 hours maximum, most often within minutes. Whether you plan to get an ESTA online or have already received an approved one and wish to use it again, rest assured that the conditions remain the same.
Has anything changed then?
Yes. After the initial confusion, the tweet in question was edited to clarify and emphasize that “Trump’s order suspends the U.S. visa INTERVIEW waiver program (not the whole program) …” There were two main features of the VWP: 1. it allows eligible citizens to visit the US with a simple travel authorization and without having to obtain a visa and 2. the right of those who already hold a nonimmigrant visa to renew it without having to go through a personal interview. This second possibility has now been revoked. The current change of policy of the VWP aims to strengthen security by requiring “that all individuals seeking a nonimmigrant visa undergo an in-person interview.” So whereas previously visa-holders from VWP countries could be excused from making the trip to the local US embassy before obtaining the same type of visa, now there is no way around it. Of course, if it suits your situation and you’re pressed for time, you can always request an ESTA online to simplify the process and avoid paperwork.
Since its implementation in 2009 the VWP program has been adapting to the need for higher security in the ever-changing climate of international travel. In 2014 the ESTA online form was updated with an additional section of questions and in 2015, immediately after the Paris attacks, then President Barack Obama enhanced the system by improving its analytical tools and enlarging the number of databases against which visa-free travelers’ information is cross-checked. We will keep you posted as travel to the US continues to evolve.