Why U.S. Approval of the APEC Business Travel Card Matters
December 14, 2011
On November 12, President Barack Obama signed the APEC Business Travel Cards (“ABT Cards”) Act of 2011, which allows U.S. businesspeople and senior government officials to enjoy the same ease of entry into 18 other Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries that their counterparts already enjoy.
“Passage of this legislation sends a clear message that the United States is committed to bolstering its commercial presence in Asia,” Steve Okun, the Singapore-based chair of the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce, said after Congress passed the legislation. “Access to business travel cards will significantly enhance business travel, investment, and trade opportunities for U.S. citizens in the rapidly growing economies in the APEC region.”
Q1: What is the APEC Business Travel Card?
A1: The idea for the APEC Business Travel Card (ABTC) dates back to at least 1995, when APEC leaders called on member economies to improve the “mobility of business people” in the pursuit of “free and open trade and investment.” Launched in 1997 with just three participating APEC members, the scheme has now expanded to all 21 APEC economies, and enrollment stands at more than 100,000, a nearly three-fold increase since March 2008. Research conducted by APEC’s Policy Support Unit confirms that ABTC holders experience significant time and cost savings when they travel to other APEC economies.
The United States has been one of the last APEC countries to introduce the ABTC program, despite strong support from the business sector. However, with the United States hosting the APEC summit in Hawaii in November, both houses of Congress moved quickly to pass ABTC implementing legislation ahead of the meeting.
The Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce, an umbrella organization of American Chambers of Commerce in Asia, strongly supported the ABTC because without it U.S. businesspeople were at a competitive disadvantage compared to their APEC counterparts. In fact, travelers from many other APEC economies have benefited from “fast-track” immigration lanes since 2007, but because there was no U.S. government agency authorized to issue ABTC to U.S. citizens, there has been no reciprocity in APEC countries for them. The National Center for APEC estimates that approximately 10,500 to 15,000 Americans will enroll in the program.
Q2: How will the ABTC work?
A2: When holders of the ABTC arrive in one of the 18 countries that are members of the program, they use an “APEC lane,” bypassing the normal customs and immigration lanes. In these countries, the card serves as a pre-processed multiple-entry visa. Each participating country allows cardholders to stay for at least 59 days and, in some cases, for 90 days. The card itself resembles a driver’s license and is renewable after three years.
Businesspeople and senior government officials with reason for frequent travel between APEC countries can apply through their own nation’s customs or immigration office for an ABTC. Each applicant will be screened and undergo a thorough background check and interview before being issued an ABTC. APEC members share “watch lists” to screen out high-risk candidates. A criminal record or providing false information can invalidate an application.
Q3: What does congressional approval of the ABTC mean for U.S. citizens?
A3: Citizens of the United States will be the only APEC nationals to encounter a significant change in their travel experience due to the passage of the legislation. Until the passage of the ABTC Act (and until ABTCs are issued), frequent U.S. business travelers to other APEC countries have been lumped in with other casual travelers and tourists arriving in other APEC economies. Now, U.S. travelers will enjoy reciprocal “fast-track” immigration processing and special lanes in other ABTC countries.
Q4: How does a U.S. citizen get an ABTC and how long will it take?
A4: The ABTC program will look familiar to frequent travelers. The program will be similar to, and integrated with, the Department of Homeland Security’s Global Entry Trusted Traveler Program. This program expedites the customs and reentry process for low-risk pre-screened U.S. travelers. The ABTC is expected to be offered as an option when U.S. travelers submit an online application for the Global Entry program.
The initial costs to the government associated with the issuance of ABTCs will be approximately $2 million. The legislation was budget neutral, and the costs will be paid for by what is expected to be a $50 fee for U.S. applicants, in addition to the $100 application fee for Global Entry. The timeline to get the program up and running has not yet been determined. Once Customs and Border Protection begins accepting applications, the agency gives a rough estimate of five days for vetting the applicant, a month to schedule and conduct an interview, and another week or two for delivery of the actual card.
Q5: How will foreign ABTC holders be affected when they arrive in the United States?
A5: Currently, the United States, along with Russia and Canada, are transitional members of the ABTC. When traveling to the United States, foreign cardholders receive expedited visa processing and access to “fast-track” immigration lanes usually used by airline crews or diplomats, but the United States does not have lanes fully devoted to APEC travelers.
The ABTC program will not change procedures for foreigners entering the United States. U.S. immigration law does not recognize the ABTC as an entry visa, and the recent legislation does not change that. Travelers from other APEC nations will still have to obtain visas prior to coming to the United States. APEC’s creation of the transitional member category in 2007 allows for this reciprocal arrangement.
Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sakari Deichsel is a researcher in the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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