CBP's modernized travel site hits speed bumps at launch

Customs and Border Protection added new features to the website that powers the Visa Waiver Program, but the rollout was marred by glitches.

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Customs and Border Protection's move to modernize features on its Electronic Travel System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) website, set to begin on Nov. 23, hit a last-minute glitch.

The new features set for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) portal are aimed at giving applicants more convenience and security as they move through the authorization process, according to CBP.

The VWP allows citizens of 39 participating countries to apply to come to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without having to get an entry visa. Those countries reciprocate a waiver process for U.S. travelers to their shores.

Non-U.S. citizens have to apply ahead of their trip for the ESTA. CBP recommends at least 72 hours in advance, to insure processing time. The portal gathers applicants' basic biometric and background data for review prior to admission. The data is checked against a series of law enforcement and intelligence agency databases.

The portal modernization, said Matthew Davies, director of the ESTA program management office in a Nov. 22 statement from CBP, includes a new tutorial video that outlines new capabilities such as saving incomplete applications that users can return to and real-time validation for all data fields that allows applicants to see errors and incomplete information.

The "save and exit" function is verified via email, according to CBP, providing more security.

The site also adds Polish to its list of available application languages, according to the CBP. On Nov. 11, Poland became the first country to join the VWP in five years.

The modernized site got off to a slow start on its inaugural weekend, however. The new functions on the site were to have gone live on Nov. 23. However, the morning of Nov. 25, the site said "Performing regular maintenance. Check back later" and that it was down operationally.

As the morning progressed, the site gained more functionality, and began accepting new applications. It said some of those applications would get a "Pending" notice, however, and advised applicants to write down their application number and check back to verify its status.

In a statement to FCW on Nov. 25, a CBP spokesman said the agency had implemented the portal changes on Nov. 23, but as the updates took effect, some applicants "were unable to receive the four-digit code necessary to verify their online accounts."

The spokesman said the issue had been addressed and that functionality has been restored to the website.