Published: May 31, 2022, Updated: May 31, 2022
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has proposed a number of changes to enhancing the security screening procedures of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is used for issuing travel authorizations for eligible visitors of the Visa Waiver Program.
Typically, when CBP wishes to fund enhancements for their technology, they submit a request for approval to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). CBP will also publish the proposals in the Federal Register as a means of getting comments and feedback from the public as well as any other government departments of agencies that may be affected.
CBP has proposed the following changes in both their recent published Federal Register requests on November 18th 2021 and February 23rd 2022. The first was published in Vol. 86, No. 220, and the second in Vol. 87, No. 36.
ESTA applicants will be required to upload the biographic page of their passport, including the passport photograph and MRZ (machine-readable zone). Currently, ESTA applicants are able utilize the photo upload picture to expedite form filling on the ESTA application. The system will extract biometric information, such as the applicant’s name, date of birth and passport number, and automatically populate this information on the form. However, if the CBP proposals are approved, applicants will be required to upload the picture. The aim is for CBP to confirm an applicant’s identity and compare the photograph against other government and security databases whereby such an applicant could be deemed to pose a security threat.
The DS-160 visa application form has required social media information since May 31st 2019. CBP deems social media information as a vital data point to assessing security risks of foreign nationals entering the United States. Social media posts and associations/friends/followers provide CBP with another data layer whereby they can determine an applicant’s disposition and opinions of the United States. Social media information also provides CBP with another source of identity verification. Currently, social media information is largely optional on the ESTA application. Thus, given the importance of social media accounts, CBP is proposing to make disclosure of this information mandatory for ESTA applicants.
As part of enhancing CBP’s biometric information collection, ESTA applicants will be required to upload selfies. This upload will provide CBP with another data point to verify an applicant’s identification. The aim is to ensure applicants are physically present and only lawful passport holders are able to apply for an ESTA rather than bots or someone other than the passport holder. If an applicant cannot be physically present, then a scan of the applicant’s passport should be acceptable to submit an application.
As part of providing applicants with a more streamlined service, CBP is seeking approval to launch an ESTA mobile application through the Android (Phase 1 Launch), and then iOS (Phase 2 Launch) stores. The mobile app will have many of the same functionalities and features of the ESTA website. However, to use the mobile app, Near Field Communication (NFC) functionality is a device requirement. If a device is not NFC enabled, an applicant will need to apply via the traditional route of the ESTA website. The NFC on the mobile device will allow users to scan the e-chip in their electronic passports to extract traveler data and automatically populate the ESTA form. It is expected the mobile app will also provide a historical record of previous ESTA applications. The mobile app will also require applicants upload a passport scan and selfie or “live” photo. Furthermore, applicants will be able to complete payment of the ESTA fees through the mobile app.
Once the proposals have been approved, it is expected the changes will be implemented within 6-12 months on the ESTA form. This will allow CBP development time to properly build the features, test and deploy them to a high volume of users. It is estimated that over 15,000,000 applicants use the ESTA system each year.