From The Independent newspaper, January 10, 2009:
For more than 20 years, the vast majority of British visitors to America have entered the US under the Visa Waiver Program. This involves filling in a green form, code name I-94W, while on board the flight to America. But from Monday 12 January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is introducing a new set of rules.Even though you might be eligible to visit the US under the visa waiver program, you will now have to apply online at least 3 days in advance of your planned trip to the US to ask for permission. Even if you are simply going to be changing planes in the US and continuing on to another destination, you will need to ask permission. (In the past, transit-only passengers did not need a visa as far as I know, so long as they were not planning on leaving the airport.) Customs and Border Protection has a page here explaining what you need to know. If you've ever been to the US and filled out the I-94 W on the plane before landing, the new ESTA program asks for exactly the same information - only before you travel to the US rather than as you arrive.
It sounds as though for many people it could be a tiny improvement - one less thing to deal with on the plane - except that, for now at least, you still have to fill in the form on the plane too! And of course, if you're someone (yes, there are some) who never goes online, filling out the online-only form could prove problematic. I forsee a market for travel agents charging to do this! The US government currently does not charge people to submit an ESTA application, but they reserve the right to do so in the future.
When I downloaded one of the PDF files that explained more about the program, it said I could find out more about the program at http://www.cpb.gov/esta. Hmm - that address gave me a page load error: "Firefox can't find the server at www.cpb.gov". So I thought I'd take a look at the site where you can actually fill out the information in advance of your visit to the US - https://esta.cpb.dhs.gov - and guess what? That server couldn't be found either!
Why am I not surprised? (Addendum - anonymous pointed out that I had mistyped the address. The sad thing is that I did it not once but multiple times, each time checking the address against the addresses listed in the PDF file. I guess I was tireder than I thought, or just getting old, as dyslexia is not something I usually have a problem with!)
The correct address is significantly longer than https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. (Spot the difference in the address?) If you actually need it, and want to avoid the typing mistakes I made, it is (currently) linked to from near the top of this Customs and Border Protection page. And if I were you, if the response you get from the system is that you ARE authorized to travel to the US, I'd make sure you print that screen out and tuck the printout in with your passport and tickets! (Actually, the instructions do tell you to keep a record of your application number and have it with you as you enter the US.)