ESTA: Introduction

ESTA is authorization for travel to the US and valid for countries that come under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). VWP has 38 participating countries and the nationals of these countries can travel visa-free to the US via ESTA. In all, ESTA means for strengthening the security of travel to the US, pertaining to the VWP participating countries.

To apply for ESTA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offers an online application form for the travel authorization. Upon entering your travel and payment and biographic details in the given form, the system processes your application and determines whether you are eligible to travel to the US as per the VWP and sans a visa.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) uses automated systems to determine the visitors’ eligibility to US travel as per the VWP. Now, before boarding, the airport authorities via electronic means will verify with the US CBP whether you are authorized to travel or not. Also, they check for any related security risks.

With ESTA, the traveler is authorized to board a US-bound carrier under the VWP. However, private carriers have to be signatory VWP carriers.

Also, the general recommendation is that the travelers should apply for ESTA when they are confirming their US travel plans. Even so, you can apply for ESTA at least 72 hours before boarding.

Remember that ESTA is not a visa and does not fulfill the requirements of US visas. Travelers having valid US visa can travel to the US as per the intended purpose for which the particular visa was issued. If you have a valid visa, then there is no need to apply for ESTA. Also, both ESTA and valid visas do not guarantee admission to the US. Only the CBP have the authorization to do so. Moreover, if they have valid reasons, they can cancel your ESTA any time during your US stay.

During January 12, 2009, applying for ESTA became compulsory. Also, the ESTA patrons have to undergo a blue Customs declaration when they arrive in the US, irrespective whether they have secured ESTA authorization or not.

Additionally, you must carry a copy of your ESTA authorization to show to the US authorities because they receive information only electronically.

ESTA is valid for a duration of 2 years, or until your passport expiry – whichever comes first. More so, armed with ESTA, you can make multiple trips to the US without re-applying for a new authorization. Also, ESTA permits the traveler to stay for a maximum period of 90 days in one visit. Moreover, you must wait for a reasonable amount of time between your US visits; however, no guidelines on the timeline between visits are mentioned.

Further, keep in mind that if your ESTA application is approved and your passport will expire within 2 years, then your ESTA validity will be only until the passport’s expiry date.

Indeed, there are several cases where you may need a new ESTA authorization, as seen below.

  • You obtain a new passport
  • You change your first/last name or gender
  • You alter your country of citizenship
  • You change your responses (YES or NO) to any of the ESTA application questions

DHS advises applying for ESTA authorization under VWP as soon as you confirm your US travel plans. Note that if your ESTA expires while you are in the US, you can depart even then.

From September 8th, 2010 onwards, as per the Travel Promotion Act, fees are levied on ESTA applications. The fee is divided into 2 parts: Processing fees and Authorization expenses.

All ESTA applicants have to bear the processing fees. On the contrary, authorization expenses are applicable only if your application is approved; otherwise, not.

An important point to note is that under the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 only if you are traveling by air or sea and from the VWP participating countries, then you are eligible to apply for ESTA. Also, when you arrive in the US, the US CBP officials will decide whether you can enter the US or not.

Furthermore, ESTA is valid if you are traveling to other US territories too – including Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.


ESTA: Background

During August 2008, the ESTA authorities started accepting registrations, though travel authorization was made mandatory from January 12th, 2009 onwards. ESTA is reusable for 2 years. Also, if your paperwork is in order, you will receive your ESTA shortly after you apply. In fact, 99% of ESTA applications are given approval within 5 seconds of applying. However, apply for ESTA only if you are traveling by US-bound sea or air carriers.

Note that if traveling to the US via land or ferry services that operate between British Columbia (that includes Vancouver and Victoria) and the Washington state, then you do not need to apply for ESTA. However, you have to complete the I-94 paper form in such cases.

ESTA authorizes the patrons to stay up to 90 days or less in the US. They can make numerous visits to the US as well. More so, they have to be traveling either for medical, tourism or business purposes.

The November 2017 data indicates that ESTA holders have the authorization to travel to Canada or Bermuda or the Caribbean Islands or Mexico if they are arriving via the US.

Also, if you are a dual citizen of particular countries, then applying for a regular tourist visa at the US embassy is the norm. Some of these countries include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. During January 2016, ESTA was revoked for these countries.

Moreover, the ESTAs of those groups who have traveled to specific countries after 1st March 2011 will not be revoked. These countries are North Korea, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq. Through the CBP can refuse entry to the aforesaid groups, unless they qualify for waivers.

Such cases are scrutinized by the Secretary of Homeland Security; and thereafter, they take decisions relating to granting of waivers. Mostly, the authorities grant waivers if they perceive them to be in the interests of the US nation.

Normally, travelers are granted waivers if they fulfill any of the following criteria:

  • Have visited the aforementioned countries on behalf of international or regional organizations
  • Were on official duty on behalf of NGOs or sub-national government agencies
  • Are journalists who are visiting for reporting purposes


ESTA: Visa Waiver Program

As mentioned earlier, the VWP has 38 participating countries. The VWP eligible groups can apply for ESTA to travel to the US for specific purposes – such as medical, tourism and business ones.

Make sure to apply for ESTA before you travel. You must, also, meet the other eligibility criteria (as seen below) to apply for ESTA. Now, if you prefer to secure a visa in your passport over ESTA, then apply for the visitor (B) visa instead of ESTA.

Among the 38 VWP, participating countries are included Portugal, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Japan, and Latvia – to list a few.

For British nationals who are applying for ESTA, they must have unlimited permanent resident rights (with the inclusion of the Isle of Man, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands) to be eligible.

In a nutshell, ESTA authorizes you to board a US-bound sea or air carrier without a visa on the VWP. And the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) manage the online ESTA system for determining whether a traveler is eligible for US travel as per the VWP.


ESTA: How to Apply

Applying for ESTA is an easy process. All you have to do is browse the website and, then, select the ‘Apply’ option. Now, you are directed to a page that contains the ESTA application form. Here, you have to furnish the required particulars and, thereafter, complete the payment process. The various modes of payment that you can opt for include via debit or credit cards.

Following the submission of your application, the system processes the same. Then, you will receive a mail concerning your ESTA authorization. Ensure to print a copy of your ESTA to carry along with you during your travel to the US.

Each person who is traveling to the US via the VWP has to apply for ESTA.

For applying to ESTA, the applicants have to fulfill the following norms:

  • Be a citizen of a VWP participant country
  • Should not have a Visitor’s visa presently
  • Must travel for a maximum of 90 days
  • Has to be traveling for medical, tourism or business purposes

Moreover, you must have the below-mentioned documents.

  • Valid passport of a country that comes under the VWP
  • A valid debit card or credit card
  • Contact details
  • Most-recent employment information, if any


ESTA: How to Renew

Upon your ESTA expiry, you can re-apply for a new authorization. Only submit a new application for the same. Bear in mind that your current authorization cannot be prolonged. To apply for new ESTA, you can visit the related ESTA websites and adhere to the given instructions. All you have to do is to answer all the given questions and submit a new application – similar to the first time that you applied.

Also, as part of your application, you have to pay the ESTA application fees; you can make payment via debit or credit card.

Moreover, to re-apply for ESTA, you do not need to wait until your current ESTA expiry. That said, you can apply for new ESTA before and after your existing ESTA. Moreover, if you apply for a new ESTA before the expiry of your existing ESTA, then your current ESTA stands canceled and is replaced with your new ESTA application.

Upon your ESTA approval, the valid dates of the travel authorization are mentioned.


ESTA: Check Validity

In some cases, you may want to check how long your ESTA is valid for. For the same, you have to visit the website and, then, click on the ‘Retrieve’ link After completing the payment, you will receive the requested data by email.


ESTA: E-Passport

One of the requirements when applying for ESTA is a valid e-passport. Also, your e-passport should be valid for 6 months after your scheduled US departure. Through, some individuals may be exempted from such provisions as per country-specific norms.

E-passports have embedded electronic chips and are considered to be improved and secured passports. With e-passports, the authorities will scan the chips for matching the traveler’s identity with their respective passports. E-passports are issued as per the guidelines that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) lays down.

Additionally, if you use an emergency or a temporary passport for entering the US via VWP, then also having a valid e-passport is necessary.