US State Department declared on Wednesday that Israel has been officially accepted into the Visa Waiver Program. This historic announcement has been eagerly awaited by many Israelis, giving rise to both anticipation and inquiries.
Under the new regulations, Israeli travelers intending to visit the United States will need to register online through the US government's Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is an automated system designed to determine eligibility for entry into the US under the visa waiver program. Applicants will be required to complete an online questionnaire, which includes inquiries about their intended length of stay in the US, any criminal history, and any prior incidents of visa denial or deportation from the country. These questions are presented in a simple yes-or-no format without the option for further explanation.
Applicants will be charged a one-time fee of $21 for processing. According to the US State Department's announcement, this exemption will become effective in November, although a specific date has yet to be confirmed.
In contrast to the current visa application process, which involves extensive paperwork, interview scheduling, and lengthy approval timelines, individuals granted visa exemption will receive their approval via email within 72 hours. Unlike a typical US tourist visa, which is valid for ten years, the exemption will be valid for two years, allowing Israelis to stay in the US for up to three months per visit.
It is crucial to note that exceeding the permitted stay period constitutes a violation of US immigration laws and may result in entry bans ranging from several years to even a decade or, in exceptional cases, permanent exclusion from the country.
It's essential to understand that the visa exemption does not guarantee automatic entry into the US. The final decision on entry for each tourist will be made by the US Customs and Border Protection Agency upon arrival. Travelers granted the exemption will face the same inquiries as those holding regular visas, including questions about their intended duration of stay, possession of return tickets, and their accommodation plans during their visit.
While individuals with prior criminal convictions or a history of visa denial or deportation may encounter difficulties obtaining a visa, attorney Dotan Cohen, who specializes in visas and immigration to the US and other countries, cautions that even seemingly minor circumstances could hinder approval. Cohen emphasizes the importance of honesty when completing the ESTA questionnaire, as the US system can cross-reference with Israeli authorities' databases.
Cohen states, "ESTA is primarily suitable for individuals with clean records, devoid of criminal issues, entanglements, or medical problems that might impede entry. The questionnaire consists of yes-or-no questions, and truthfulness is essential." He further adds that "not only major crimes can prevent ESTA approval; questions about prior arrests or charges can pose challenges, even for individuals with minor infractions, such as past protest-related arrests."
In conclusion, while the introduction of the Visa Waiver Program for Israelis represents a significant step forward in US-Israeli relations, travelers are advised to provide accurate information on their ESTA forms to avoid potential complications, as providing false information can lead to visa denials or more severe consequences.