By Kim Sue-young
South Koreans will be able to travel the United States without visas as early as Nov. 17 following the country being admitted to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) Friday, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
As a result, people can take a visa-free trip for up to 90 days for tour and commercial purposes if they hold a machine-readable passport and receive prior approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
U.S. President George W. Bush announced the entry of seven allied countries, including South Korea, into the VWP and informed the U.S. Congress of the expansion of the program.
South Korea and all other VWP member countries are mandated to register with ESTA by Jan. 12 at the latest.
Previously, 27 countries, mostly Western European nations and Japan were part of the privileged program. The six other countries added to the program are Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
To guarantee a ``trouble-free'' visit to the United States, each Korean citizen must have an e-passport which contains data about the bearer and leave the United States within 90 days of their arrival.
If they want to stay longer than three months, they will have to fill out the appropriate visa application form, bring documents required and have a face-to-face interview at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul ― the existing procedure.
Also, Koreans using the VWP are not allowed to change their status during their visit.
Travelers must have their personal information such as name, sex and passport number registered with ESTA.
The information provided to ESTA parallels the information requested on the Nonimmigrant Arrival/Departure Form I94-W travelers bound for the United States now complete on the airplane en route to the country, according to the U.S. embassy.
A person with no record of felony crimes such as murder or rape will receive approval without difficulty, it said.
The ESTA approval is valid for two years, so people can make multiple trip to the United States during this time, and although it is generally approved immediately it can take up to 72 hours.
The embassy advised people planning a trip to register with ESTA three days before their departure.
Lee Jung-kwan, the director general of the Foreign Ministry's consular affairs bureau in Seoul, said South Korea is expected to save more than 10 billion won ($74.5 million) thanks to the simplified process.
More than 360,000 South Koreans apply for U.S. visas a year, which costs them $110 each.