ESTA And Your Personal Data – Travelling to the USA

It is well known that the USA has one of the strictest entry controls in the world. But exactly what data must be provided upon entry? A lot of personal information is collected through the mandatory visa or ESTA process, which must be applied for before departure. A photograph of all travellers is also taken upon entry.

ESTA or visa for the USA

Anyone wishing to enter the USA must apply for a travel authorisation before departure. One can apply for a conventional visa, which is generally seen as a costly and time-consuming process. Since the UK and all the countries in the European Union have joined the US visa waiver programme, travellers from these countries get an alternative travel authorisation, the ESTA. It can be applied for via the digital ESTA form. The form can be completed online in the span of a few minutes and greatly facilitates entry into the USA.

What is an ESTA?

The ESTA system was implemented after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Before the attacks, travellers were often able to pass customs without even having a valid passport, and checking in general was very lax. After the attacks, this changed drastically. The US is now among the strictest countries in the world when it comes to visas, and this has often led to delays in the processing of applications. The ESTA process allows for a way to circumvent this lengthy process, as it doesn’t require a visit to the embassy.

Personal data in the ESTA form

Even though an ESTA is much easier to apply for than a conventional US visa, a long list of personal data needs to be provided. In addition to contact details, passport details and some information about travel plans, which are also required for visa applications for many other countries, the ESTA form also requires some surprisingly specific questions to be answered.

The form asks, among other things, for the names of parents, employers and even the social media profiles of all travellers. This is to verify that the parents are not known criminals and to ensure that the applicant is financially secure, to avoid them overstaying their ESTA for financial purposes. In addition, if a parent is from a country considered a high-risk country by US Customs, this can cause issues for the applicant, even if they were not born in that country themselves. In this respect, the ESTA application process is much stricter than the visa application process. You are also unable to offer further explanation, as there is no interview at the embassy involved. The countries currently considered high-risk by US Customs are: Yemen, Somalia, North-Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Sudan. If the applicant has at some point made a trip to one of these countries, there is a high chance the application will be rejected.

In the past, questions about social media profiles were optional fields in the ESTA application form, but since 2020, they have become mandatory. If US customs finds problematic content on any social media profile, entry to the USA can be denied. Anyone wishing to enter the US should therefore check well in advance what has been shared on their own social media channels. Of course, the US government has no way of knowing if you have any social media profiles, but it is still highly recommended answering truthfully, as with all questions in the ESTA form.

Biometric chip and photographs upon entry

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, US authorities requested that all passports worldwide be equipped with biometric chips, enabling the electronic identification of all travellers. By now, all passports issued in the UK and the European Union are equipped with a biometric chip. This means that the face and fingerprints of all travellers with a passport can be read digitally. To apply for an ESTA, the use of a biometric passport is mandatory.

Upon entry into the US, a photo is taken of each traveller and machine-checked against the biometric data in the passport. If the images do not match the biometric data, entry will be denied. If the computer reports a match between the passport data, the ESTA and the photograph taken, entry to the US will be granted. It is not clear what happens to the pictures taken and the data submitted via the ESTA form. The US authorities do not provide any information on this.

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