Europeans who book flights to America have to do something strange. Up to 72 hours before the plane takes off, they need to log on to a Web site and type in some personal details.
If they don't, there might be trouble boarding the plane. That's because the U.S., in the wake of 9/11, has insisted on learning a number of things about passengers on every single U.S.-bound flight. Europeans get to use the Web-based "Electronic System for Travel Authorization," or ESTA, because most European countries have visa-waiver deals with Washington, and without ESTA data there would be no way to track incoming Europeans short of reviving a visa regime.
"A passenger will, in effect, make a reservation with the United States" before boarding a plane, is how then-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff put it in 2007, describing the still-unbuilt system.
ESTA has created a strange new status between needing and not needing a U.S. visa. The visa-waiver program (or VWP) dates from 1986, when the Reagan administration decided to extend visa-free travel to U.S. allies as a friendly gesture that would also cut down on meaningless paperwork. It offers 90-day stays in America — without the hassle or expense of applying for a fancy passport stamp — to citizens of 36 countries. Those countries offer visa-free travel to Americans in return.
ESTA been up and running since 2008 but became compulsory this year, in late January. The online questionnaire takes many details requested by a visa application, but (so far) no fee. At the moment it's just an electronic version of those oblong forms that foreign travelers have always filled out on U.S.-bound planes before they land.
But that Washington wants information to "pre-clear" a visitor before boarding makes ESTA resemble a visa application. After a bill in Congress called the Travel Promotion Act — now signed by President Obama — introduced the idea of a $10 visitor's fee for all tourists in mid-2009 to fund a campaign that will cheerlead for American tourist sites, Germany's then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble spoke for a lot of Europeans when he said, drily, "Financing a campaign to promote tourism by charging tourists $10 may not be logical."
Now Europeans complain that visa-free travel to America no longer exists. What the U.S. offers instead is visa-lite travel. And on the still-undetermined day when Washington charges a $10 tourist tax alongside its request for ESTA information, referring to an American "visa-waiver program" will pretty much be nonsense.
European officials have threatened to establish their own ESTA-like regime, which would horrify most American travelers. ("What's this Web site? Why do we gotta type this in?") It would be more honest for governments on both sides of the pond to ask for visas again.
The problem is that Washington has grown addicted to ESTA. The visa-lite regime turns out to be a quick way to scan the horizon for potentially threatening visitors. Most people are approved by the system in minutes; the idea is to screen out a few individuals for further questioning.
And as long as ESTA works as a visa substitute, Washington can maintain the VWP as a sort of fictional first-class status for its friends that also serves as a lever to impose new rules. Europeans now have to travel with "ePassports" because of pressure exerted by the State Department through the visa-waiver program.
This influence is what conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation mean when they come out in favor of the visa-waiver program. "The U.S. should want more - not fewer - countries in the program," wrote James Carafano, a Heritage research fellow, in 2007, "because they will be agreeing to abide by more stringent security standards for passport control and international cooperation."
With ESTA in place, the U.S. has revived its enthusiasm for granting visa-waiver status to new countries — something it had quit doing between 1999 and 2008. Greece, for example, just joined the visa-waiver club. "Greek nationals can travel on the VWP beginning April 5, 2010," reads the Department of Homeland Security Web site. "However, potential Greek travelers may apply for travel authorization approval under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) beginning immediately."
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