A lot of travellers still try to avoid going to - or through - the United States in order to avoid being caught up in the tougher security controls introduced in the wake of 9/11.
Partly that's to do with the ramshackle facilities at Los Angeles International Airport, still the main gateway to the US for New Zealanders, which make the immigration process a tedious business whatever happens.
But it's also related to the arbitrary way the new rules seem to be applied, with travellers singled out for special attention and sometimes even refused entry, without any prior warning.
The situation is, however, improving. The last few times I've been through LA the process was slightly more welcoming. And work is well under way on a much needed new international terminal.
In addition the US Government has now introduced an online system which will allow travellers to find out before they leave New Zealand whether there could be a problem about gaining entry (so it can be sorted out in advance) and to complain if they feel they have been given a hard time (hopefully preventing any repetition).
If you haven't heard about these changes then it's a good idea to pay attention because early next year the online authorisation system - known as Electronic System for Travel Authorisation or ESTA - will become compulsory and turning up at the airport without having clearance in advance would not be a good idea.
As part of the effort to see this change goes smoothly, US Ambassador Bill McCormick last week answered questions on how the new system will work.
What is ESTA all about?
In addition to remembering their toothbrush and passport, Kiwis travelling to the United States without visas from January 12 next year will need to complete a quick and simple online form before boarding their plane or cruise ship. ESTA is an automated and secure online system which determines whether visitors are eligible to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP). It requires the same information as the green paper I-94w form which VWP travellers currently fill out en route to the US.
And the Visa Waiver Programme?
The Visa Waiver Programme allows qualifying nationals or citizens from New Zealand and 33 other countries to travel to the US for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without first having to obtain a visa. Further details on who can use the VWP are on the US Embassy website at: http://newzealand.usembassy.gov/ and click on "Visas to the US".
Why is ESTA being introduced?
US legislation enacted in the wake of 9/11 required the Department of Homeland Security to implement an electronic travel authorisation system to enhance the security of the VWP. ESTA adds this new layer of security. It allows DHS to determine, in advance of travel, whether an individual is eligible to travel under the VWP, and whether they pose a security risk either on board the plane or once they reach the US.
ESTA brings the admission process for VWP travellers into the 21st Century. So much of how we travel is now automated and online - buying plane tickets, booking hotels, researching our destination. We are now automating our admission process the same way.
Who will be affected by this change?
All nationals or citizens of Visa Waiver Programme countries who plan to travel to the US for temporary business or pleasure without a visa will need this authorisation. The important change is that they'll now need to get it prior to boarding a US-bound plane or cruise ship, rather than filling out a form en route.
How do travellers apply for this authorisation to travel to the US?
It's an easy online process. To apply for travel authorisation, just go to https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/. Answer the required questions and click the submit button.
What information will a traveller need in order to complete the ESTA process?
The same information travellers currently write on the green I-94W card: their name, date of birth, passport and travel information. They'll also need to answer questions regarding their eligibility to travel using the VWP.
When will ESTA come into force?
Voluntary ESTA applications have been possible since August this year. All travellers will be required to obtain a travel authorisation via ESTA for VWP travel as of January 12, 2009.
When should Kiwi travellers start using ESTA?
The sooner the better. The ESTA website has been up and running for a couple of months, and as of the end of October, more than 3000 Kiwis had successfully used the ESTA system. I suggest that all those eligible to travel to the US under the VWP begin using it as soon as possible. The deadline for advance travel authorisation becoming mandatory is January 12, 2009.
How long is an ESTA travel authorisation valid?
ESTA travel authorisations are valid for two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. A visitor may travel to the US repeatedly within the validity period without having to apply for another ESTA.
How far in advance of a trip do travellers need to apply?
Again, the sooner the better! While applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel, we recommend that you apply as early as possible. Not all travel can be planned in advance, and applications for last-minute or emergency travel will be accommodated.
Do travellers ever need to reapply for travel authorisation through ESTA?
Yes, there are instances when a new travel authorisation via ESTA would be required: for example, if you've acquired a new passport or have changed your name or citizenship, or if the answers to any of the "yes or no" ESTA questions have changed, a new application must be submitted. When the ESTA travel authorisation expires after two years, a new authorisation is required.
Can someone else apply for a traveller if they don't have access to the internet?
Yes, a friend, relative, travel agent, or other third party may apply on a traveller's behalf. Alternatively, those without access to the internet can use the US Visa Information toll number on 0900 87847 and staff there can help with travellers' ESTA applications over the phone (though there is a charge).
How long does it take for the system to process an application?
Once a traveller's application has been successfully submitted online, most cases get an immediate determination of eligibility for travel. Worldwide, 200,000 travellers have sought electronic travel authorisation since the site went live, and more than 99.5 per cent of these ESTA applications were approved, most in less than a minute.
How will travellers know whether their ESTA has been approved?
They will get one of three responses: Authorisation Approved; Travel Not Authorised (the traveller will be advised how to apply for a visa to travel to the US); and Authorisation Pending. If it's pending, the traveller will need to check the ESTA website for updates within 72 hours to receive a final response.
What should someone do if they are denied a travel authorisation?
If an application for travel authorisation is denied and the traveller wishes to continue with the trip, they will be required to apply for a visa at the US Consulate General in Auckland. For more about visa application procedures, they can go to http://newzealand.us embassy.gov and click on "Visas to the US". This is why travellers shouldn't leave their ESTA applications to the last minute: they may receive a Not Authorised or Pending response, and it takes time to arrange a visa.
If someone has a current and valid visa, do they need to submit a travel authorisation via ESTA as well?
No, anyone who possesses a valid visa will be able to travel to the United States with that visa for the duration of its validity and for the purpose it was issued, and won't have to apply through ESTA.
Is there a fee to obtain travel authorisation?
No, the US Government will not initially collect a fee for ESTA applications. However, there may be an application fee in the future.
What about travellers just transiting the US, say, on their way to London?
Transit passengers will require either an ESTA or a visa. Transit travellers should simply write "In transit" in the US destination field in their ESTA application.
What do you say to the complaint that another security requirement will simply deter travellers to the US?
The US is an open society which welcomes travellers from around the world who genuinely want to visit, study, and do business there. We're dedicated to protecting their safety and keeping our doors open to them. Changes like ESTA reflect our concern for ensuring the safety of US residents and visitors alike.
Beyond ESTA, are there any other recent visa or travel changes readers should know about?
For those who do need visas, we're doing our best to make the visa application process as smooth and hassle-free as possible.
Delays for travellers during screening on airport arrival can occur when they are identified incorrectly as someone who represents a safety or security risk. Last year DHS launched the Traveller Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) website to act as the one-stop for travellers who are denied or delayed airline boarding or entry into the United States, or feel they are being continuously referred to secondary screening. The TRIP website is: www.dhs.gov/trip.
If you have any questions about requirements for entering the US send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and the embassy has undertaken to try to answer those we forward.