On February 23rd as part of the continued implementation of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) had been enhanced to include questions that would address travel eligibility to the US for an individual who has past travel to one or more of the following countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Travel to these restricted countries by nationals that participate in the Visa Waiver Pilot Program will mean that a previous ESTA approval will likely be revoked or that a new ESTA application will be denied. Current ESTA holders should check their ESTA status prior to travel on CBP’s website. CBP has provided a waiver process for travelers that may be affected by the recent change in the law; however, it is available only through the ESTA application as the information gathered in the ESTA will assist in making the waiver determination. Travelers will not be able to apply separately for a waiver of the new restrictions. Additionally, individuals who traveled to Iran after July 14, 2015 for legitimate business-related purposes may be eligible for a waiver. If a waiver is not granted, the individual will need to apply for a visa through the regular consular process.
It is important to note that the Department of State (DOS) does not have access to the CBP file and cannot advise an individual why a waiver was not granted. The DOS will review the visa application independent of CBP’s ESTA application process. For those who need a US visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel to the United States, US embassies and consulates are prepared to provide visa interview appointments on an expedited basis. The Department of State continues to pledge an increase in staff if necessary to manage any surge in visa applications. However, DOS’ track record in dealing with sudden changes in the law would indicate that delays and backlogs will surely ensue at many consulates and embassies.