As the holiday season approaches, many foreign nationals will be traveling abroad to visit family and friends. We urge all foreign nationals to plan their international travel well in advance due to possible delays that could affect exit from, and re-entry into, the United States. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) entry and exit registration program, known as US-VISIT, affects all non-immigrant visa holders exiting and entering the U.S. Foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. must have their two index fingers scanned and must be photographed to match and authenticate their travel documents at a port of entry. At this time, 10 U.S. airports have replaced the two-fingerprint scanners with new 10-fingerprint scanners. This inspection process may result in delays. International travelers are no longer required to check out at a US-VISIT exit kiosk but must still return their Form I-94 Arrival Departure Record to an airline or ship representative when departing the U.S.
For those foreign nationals who will need to secure visa stamps at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad before returning to the U.S., please be aware that visa issuance is no longer a simple, straightforward and speedy matter. Department of State regulations require mandatory personal appearances for most visa applicants. In addition, security clearances are required before any visa can be issued. In many instances, these clearances can cause delays ranging from several days to several months.
Foreign nationals must schedule their visa appointments at most U.S. consulates well in advance, as many as 30+ days in advance of the actual appointment. We strongly encourage all foreign nationals to apply for their visa stamp in their home country. Many consular posts will accept visa applications from third country nationals (TCNs), but this varies on a post-by-post basis and, except for Mexico and Canada, TCNs will have to show some ties or reason for applying in another country. It should never be assumed that a consular post outside of the foreign national's home country will accept his or her visa application. Please note that visa wait times are especially long at U.S. consular posts in Canada and Mexico right now. The consular posts in Canada only release visa appointment dates three to eight weeks in advance, and the slots fill very quickly. We have noticed that many foreign nationals are having difficulty scheduling appointments at U.S. consulates in Canada and Mexico and advise all foreign nationals who will need to apply for visa stamps over the holiday period to make alternative arrangements in their home country.
Once an individual appears at the consulate for a personal interview, it can take from several days to several weeks for the passport with a new visa stamp to be returned. While processing times vary on a post-by-post basis and depend on the results of all security clearances, foreign nationals should never expect that their passports and stamps will be processed and returned on the same or even the next day. More information on specific scheduling, wait and processing times can be found on the Department of State's website at https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/information/processing-times.html. Please note that even the posted times are only approximate and subject to change.
As always, we recommend that foreign nationals carefully inspect their passports, visa stamps and Form I-94 Arrival Departure Records upon receipt and arrival to the U.S. to ensure that all documents are valid, bear the correct visa classification and carry correct validity dates. In most cases, passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the anticipated duration of stay in the U.S. The principal employee should also carefully inspect his or her family members' documents. As immigration and consular officials can and do make mistakes, it is important to review all documents before leaving the consulate or walking away from the Customs and Border Protection Officer at a port of entry.
Upon reentry into the U.S., foreign nationals should expect enhanced screening and questioning by immigration officers. Identity and visa validity are checked against law enforcement databases. Applicants should expect questions about their immigration status, travel history, purpose of the visit, background, employment and other matters. International travelers should expect delays due to these security measures and should schedule their connecting flights further apart to allow enough time for the immigration and customs screening. It is always wise to remain patient, answer all questions as clearly as possible, and ask for clarification if a question is misunderstood.
Please do not hesitate to contact any of our immigration attorneys if you have foreign national employees who will travel abroad over the holidays and will need to apply for a new visa stamp before their return to the U.S. We can provide the employee with a visa application package that includes detailed instructions on scheduling the visa appointment, documents required for the appointment, fees, etc.
Seven Countries Added to Visa Waiver Program
As anticipated, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced that the Visa Waiver Program has been expanded to include an additional seven countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Republic of South Korea and the Slovak Republic. Nationals from these countries, as well as all visa waiver countries, will be eligible to travel to the United States for up to 90 days, without having to apply for a visa stamp at the U.S. Consulate, for tourist and business purposes beginning November 17, 2008. The DHS announcement comes less than a month after President Bush announced the imminent expansion of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to include these countries. VWP travelers from the seven added countries must possess an e-Passport and are required to register online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). It is important to note that foreign nationals from the pre-existing VWP countries may be subject to different passport and ESTA requirements. More information on these requirements can be found in the article below.
Reminder About Visa Waiver Program Passport Requirements
The VWP currently allows nationals of 34 countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. DHS recently announced an interim rule that will require VWP travelers to register online with DHS' Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) at least 72 hours before their visit. Although the ESTA requirements are not expected to become mandatory until January 12, 2009, VWP travelers can start registering online now using the ESTA website at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Any passport issued on or after October 26, 2006, by a VWP country must be an e-Passport for VWP travelers to be eligible to enter the U.S. without a visa. An e-Passport contains an electronic chip storing biographic information from the data page, as well as other biometric information, such as the required digital photograph of the holder. You can identify an e-Passport by looking for the symbol on the illustration below:
If your passport does not have this feature, you can still travel without a visa if it is a valid passport issued before October 26, 2005, and includes a machine-readable zone, or was issued between October 26, 2005, and October 25, 2006, and includes a digital photograph. A digital photograph is one that is printed on the page, not a photo that is glued or laminated into the passport. A machine-readable zone passport has two lines of text as letters, numbers and chevrons (<<<) at the bottom of the personal information page, along with your picture. If you were issued a passport on or after October 26, 2006, and it is not an e-Passport, you will need to obtain a visa or an e-Passport before traveling to the U.S. under the VWP.
Foreign nationals are encouraged to check with their country's passport issuing agency for specific questions about obtaining an e-Passport. Please do not hesitate to contact any of our immigration attorneys if you have questions or concerns regarding the new ESTA requirements, e-Passports or travel under the Visa Waiver Program.