TOKYO — Starting next year, all visitors to the United States from visa-waiver countries must get online approval before traveling to America for tourism or business, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The new program, called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, will collect information similar to what travelers currently write by hand on entry forms while en route to the United States, according to Raymond R. Baca, the counsel general for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

Beginning Jan. 12, travelers from countries such as Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom must fill out an online application before starting their trips, Baca said Thursday during a news briefing at the embassy.

"It will just be done electronically and before they board the plane," Baca said.

Baca said the new system is meant to strengthen security at entry points, while guaranteeing easy travel for legitimate visitors.

The authorization will check travelers’ information against existing data that include watch lists, criminal histories and information about stolen or missing passports, according to Michael R. Cox, a Homeland Security official in Tokyo.

Travelers must seek authorization at least 72 hours prior to travel, although officials recommended that they get the approval as soon as they confirm travel plans. The program allows for special applications within 72 hours of travel for emergencies, Baca said.

Once a person enters the data, he or she will get one of three responses: approval, which would come almost immediately; pending, which could indicate a longer response time; and denial. In the case of denial, the traveler may apply for a travel visa at the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate, Baca and Cox said.

If the application is authorized, it lasts for two years for multiple trips. The two years will start on the date authorization is given, Baca said.

Currently, citizens from 27 countries can travel to the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining prior permission through a visa. Officials on Thursday said the ESTA is not a visa, and they expect the majority of applications from citizens of these 27 countries to be authorized.

The new ESTA system will go online Aug. 1 in a voluntary status, although the online version will be in English only.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

Visa Waiver ProgramThe Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 27 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. Starting Jan. 12, citizens from these countries must get approval through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before coming to the United States.

The countries in the Visa Waiver Program are:

AndorraAustriaAustraliaBelgiumBruneiDenmarkFinlandFranceGermanyIcelandIrelandItalyJapanLiechtensteinLuxembourgMonacoThe NetherlandsNew ZealandNorwayPortugalSan MarinoSingaporeSloveniaSpainSwedenSwitzerlandUnited KingdomFor more information, go to and click on links about pre-travel authorization.

Source: Department of Homeland Security

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