GAO Report on Electronic System for Travel Authorization/Visa Waiver Program

Today the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report examining the implementation of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and the management of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). GAO evaluated DHS’s implementation of the ESTA program, the US’s progress in negotiating information sharing agreements with VWP nations, and DHS’s timeliness in issuing required biennial reports.

GAO was generally complementary of DHS’s implementation of ESTA. They noted that the system provides travelers with authorization for multiples entries over a two year period, rather than having to fill out a form upon each arrival. GAO interviewed travel industry officials in six VWP countries and reported that they praised DHS’s widespread outreach efforts, reasonable implementation timeframes and responsiveness to feedback. However, they were critical of the ESTA fee. GAO found that while 98 percent of VWP travelers in 2010 complied with the ESTA requirement, airlines still transported approximately 364,000 travelers who did not have the required ESTA approval. GAO noted that DHS has not conducted a review to asses any potential risks this may present.

In order to participate in the VWP, countries must sign three information sharing agreements with the US. While almost all of the 36 VWP countries have signed an agreement to share lost or stolen passport data, only about half have signed either the agreement to share terrorist watch list data or provide access to biographical, biometric or criminal history data. GAO notes that DHS has established a compliance schedule to ensure that all VWP countries have signed the agreements by June, 2012 and has established measures to be taken (although short of removal from the program) should they not meet the deadline.

Finally, DHS is required to complete biennial reports on each VWP country evaluating the security risk of that country remaining in the program. GAO found that DHS had not completed 18 of the 36 reports and many of the completed reports were over a year late. DHS stated that they often do not receive the intelligence information they require to complete the reports in a timely manner.

GAO recommended that DHS establish a timeframe to review cases of ESTA non-compliance and take steps to address the delays in the biennial review process. DHS agreed with both recommendations.

The full GAO report can be found here: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11335.pdf.