By Graham Tibbetts | Under the new scheme tourists will be advised to apply online for approval for travel from the US Department of Homeland Security at least three days before they leave.
Anyone denied permission will be barred when they attempt to check in at the airport.
The measure is aimed at tightening US border controls to prevent a repeat of the September 11 terror attacks. Known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), it was introduced in a soft launch in August but will be compulsory from January 12.
It replaces the I-94 form, which is currently handed out during the flight to passengers from Britain and a number of other countries who do not require visas. Applicants will provide the same biographical information and passport details, including names, passport numbers, date of birth and destination, as with the I-94 form.
The scheme is free and is valid for multiple entries for two years. Paul Morris, executive director of customs and border protection, told The Daily Telegraph that he expected 99.6 of all applicants would be approved for travel within four seconds.
The rest will be subject to closer scrutiny before a decision is taken or will be rejected outright. So far 1,000 out of 300,000 applications have been refused. Anyone turned down can still apply for a visa from the US embassy.
Mr Morris urged people to apply at least 72 hours before they travel to ensure their application was processed before they reached the airport.
“The last thing we want is somebody travelling to the US, finding there is an issue and we refuse them admission,” he said.
“By knowing more about people coming to the US we can better identify those we want to take a look at.
“It will enable us to look for individuals who are a national security concern or individuals who are a threat to civil aviation – people who would have been a threat if allowed to board an aircraft. The aim is to prevent these people coming to the US without addressing the issues behind them.”
The procedure would allow security officials to weed out those with a lost or stolen passport.
But it would also free up officials to help travellers pass through America’s notoriously difficult immigration desk more quickly, said Mr Morris. He admitted that there was an image problem and said steps were now being taken that would overturn America’s reputation as having one of the most unfriendly immigration services in the world.
“We can put more people into inspection lanes, we can address waiting times and can once again be looked upon as a welcoming nation, because that’s what we are. In no way do we want to leave travellers with the notion that we are anything but a welcoming nation,” he said.
“There is a perception problem and we are doing all we can to address that. We recognise we must do a much better job of being welcoming.”
He said they were deploying passenger service managers to assist visitors waiting at immigration “to address questions and make them more comfortable about the process”.
Officials are also being trained to greet passengers with a standard greeting.
“When Americans are returning home they will say ‘welcome home’ and when it is visitors they will say ‘welcome to the US’.
“We have installed video monitors to take people’s minds off queueing. They will show videos of people in the US saying ‘welcome’. It’s a feel-good video that’s meant to take their mind off the fact that they’ve just got off a 12-hour flight and they are in the middle of the immigration process.”
He said that they had also worked with airlines and airports to speed up the immigration process.
web link https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/