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How does the ESTA identify security risks?

Updated: Aug 25, 2023  | Tags: Border Security, ESTA Requirements, ESTA Eligibility


Since 2008, the security of the VWP (Visa Waiver Program) has been enhanced by the introduction of ESTA, which enables the CBP (U.S Customs and Border Protection) to vet prospective travelers to see if they pose a security risk before they board a carrier bound for the United States. ESTA acts as a counterbalance to the vulnerabilities and risks presented by visa-free travel with an extra layer of security. Vetting in advance allows DHS personnel to focus their efforts on the small number of travelers who potentially pose a threat.

How does the ESTA identify security risks?
How does the ESTA identify security risks?

How does ESTA screen travelers?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system used by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The general aim of the ESTA is to screen applicants for potential security risks before they arrive in the United States. Here are some ways in which the ESTA system may identify security risks:

[1] Data Collection and Verification

Personal Information: Applicants are required to provide accurate personal information, including their full name, date of birth, and passport details.

Travel Information: The application also requires details about your travel plans, including your flight number and destination within the United States.

Questionnaire: During the application process, travelers must answer a series of questions that pertain to their eligibility under the VWP, as well as to security and health matters.

[2] Background Checks and Data Cross-Referencing

National Databases: Information from the application is checked against various U.S. security databases, such as the Terrorist Screening Database, to identify potential matches or red flags.

Interagency Sharing: The DHS can also coordinate with other federal agencies and international partners to cross-reference data.

Criminal History: Questions about criminal history can flag applicants who might pose a security risk.

[3] Analytical Algorithms

The ESTA system uses algorithms that are designed to flag applications based on a range of criteria that could indicate a security risk. The specifics are not publicly disclosed for security reasons.

[4] Continuous Monitoring

Updates: Even after the initial approval, ESTA authorizations can be revoked if new information comes to light that suggests that a traveler poses a security risk.

Port of Entry: Approval of an ESTA application does not guarantee entry into the United States. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the port of entry will also perform checks and can refuse entry if they identify any security risks.

What are the recent ESTA security enhancements?

As a response to these increasing concerns, DHS has enhanced the security of the VWP by means of improvements to ESTA. While facilitating visa-free travel to the United States, the enhancements will boost the ability of the CBP to vet travelers and assist in addressing the problem of returning foreign fighters. ESTA applicants are now asked to provide additional information, which can all be viewed on the ESTA application form. The new question topics are summarized as follows:

  • Names of parents
  • Other names, aliases or citizenships of other countries
  • Contact information (phone, email, points of contact)
  • National Identification Number (if applicable)
  • Place of Birth
  • Employment information (if applicable)
  • Social media information
  • Passport and Identity Verification using third-party software

Even with these additional questions, an ESTA is not the same as an electronic visa. Applying for an ESTA is still a far less complex process than applying for a B1 or B2 visa, which involves providing biometric and biographical information as well as undergoing an interview with a U.S. consular officer. Despite the increased levels of security, the number of people wishing to travel to the U.S. is continuing to grow.

What databases or security systems are used by ESTA in deciding whether an applicant is eligible?

Countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program are required to share intelligence and cooperate in matters of security with the United States. The VWP status of a country is checked every two years, allowing for its security and anti-terrorism measures to be reviewed. When you apply for an ESTA online, the system instantaneously crosschecks the biographic information supplied by applicants against multiple databases, including the TSDB (Terrorist Screening Database), records of lost and stolen passports, the SLTD (INTERPOL’S Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database), any previous Visa Waiver Program refusals, visa revocations, expedited removals, as well as records from Public Health departments, including the CDCP (Centers for Disease Control and Preventions) to check for individuals suffering from a communicable disease which constitutes a threat to public health.

What are the typical risks used to determine if an applicant is eligible or not?

When you apply for an ESTA, you will be required to answer yes or no to 9 eligibility questions that are used to determine whether or not you are eligible. The questions include:

  • Whether or not you are suffering from a physical or mental disorder
  • If you have a communicable disease
  • Whether you are a drug abuser or have violated any laws regarding illegal drugs
  • Whether you have ever been arrested for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority
  • Whether you have to engage or have ever engaged in terrorist activities
  • Whether you have ever committed fraud to obtain a visa for yourself or on someone else’s behalf
  • Whether you have previously been denied a visa or refused entry to the US
  • If you have ever or are currently seeking employment without the proper visa, whether you have ever overstayed your visa
  • If, since 1st March 2011, you have travelled to a list of countries currently considered to present a risk, including Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen.

If an applicant answers yes to any of these questions, their application will most likely be refused.