Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Visa Waiver Program and using the ESTA

This post is not really related to living/working in Korea, but it may be useful for anyone trying to travel to the US.

The last time I went to the US, I was about 11. It was summer and we went to New York, where people were friendly and welcoming and artistic and a bit weird. It was April 2001. Getting a visa was a bit of a nightmare, though, as we filled out endless forms and had to go for interviews at the embassy, and so on.

When my boyfriend invited me to visit his family this summer, I started to plan a trip to Seoul to visit the embassy - a tricky feat when they are closed on Korean and American holidays and hold the same office hours I do. I'd have to take a day off, or something. Add the expense of the KTX or the time-expense of the Mugunghwa to get there and back, and the expense of the visa itself, and all the paperwork and standing in queues, and getting photos taken, and being interviewed... Ugh.

Then my wonderful boyfriend sent me a link to an article about the newly-signed Visa Waiver Program. This is an agreement the US holds with 38 countries that lets you come in under certain conditions without a visa. South Africa is not included in the list...Yet.

From the website:

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries* to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, when they meet all requirements explained below. Travelers must be eligible to use the VWP and have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)approval prior to travel.

The countries are: 
The United Kingdom, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium Brunei, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia the Republic of Korea and Taiwan

as long as you meet the requirements, which are detailed here.

Luckily for me, I have dual citizenship so I can travel to the US on my UK passport.

Important for UK passport holders: Your passport should be a modern one (issued after October 2006), with biometric data in it. On the cover you should see a symbol that looks like the one below, and the back should be hard and plasticky, with a digital photo.

If you qualify for the VWP, that means that all you need to do now is complete the ESTA application and pay the fee. You have to use a credit card to pay it but the card does not need to be in your name. It costs $14 so you could probably ask a nice friend to do it, and give them the money, if you don't have a credit card that works internationally. 

Completing the ESTA application was a bit frustrating as the website kept timing out while processing my information. You'd think the country that created the NSA would have better information-capturing government websites... I digress.

Head over to the official ESTA page to apply. Beware of third party websites that attach a monumental fee to your application without actually providing you with anything you can't get for free yourself. I almost paid $79 instead of the basic $14 because of this. What a con!

The official ESTA page is here. Complete your information and submit it. It might get stuck on step 4, or say that the server timed out. If you go back to the original screen and retrieve your application, you should get a screen saying "Authorization Pending" if it is not immediately processed. I had that screen for a few nerve-wracking hours, and it seemed like the website was broken.When it finally allowed me to try to pay, it wouldn't accept the credit card I was using. Then it went back to being "Authorization Pending" for a few more hours. Finally, this morning, I got the beautiful "Authorization Approved. Welcome to America" message. 

I've heard about it taking up to 72 hours to complete. Don't panic and keep trying. If something does go wrong and it's rejected, you can try again after 10 days. You must pay within 7 days of applying. As far as I can tell, the approved authorization is valid for 2 years before you need to apply again. 

Update: My arrival in the US was a piece of cake. There was a self-service immigration machine with a special queue for those of us with ESTAs. Simply scanning my passport and then going where I was directed (another queue for people with a certain kind of X on the receipt) for it to be verified by a human being, and I was done! The longest part of my arrival was waiting for my bag, which was the last one to come out. I definitely recommend this to anyone who is eligible for a smooth, cheap and easy arrival.