The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) establishes a visitor’s eligibility to the United States via automated systems. However, only travelers arriving via sea or air and from countries that come under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are eligible to apply for ESTA as per the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.
Note that ESTA authorization is not the determining factor for admitting travelers to the US. Upon arriving in the US, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) executives have the authority to determine whether a visitor is admissible or not. ESTA applications gather biographic details and respond to VWP eligibility queries.
From December 2018 onwards, the applicants have to apply for ESTA 72 hours before traveling to the US. However, the general recommendation is that the travelers must apply for ESTA in advance, and while they are making their US travel plans.
Keep in mind that passengers, with the inclusion of babies, will not be allowed to enter the US sans ESTA.
Moreover, you need to apply for ESTA for visiting US specific territories as well. These include the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
You do not require ESTA if coming to the US via land from Mexico or Canada. In such cases, the travelers only have to fill an I-94 paper form for gaining US entry.
Visa Waiver Program
The nationals of VWP participating countries are eligible to apply for ESTA for US travel for business or tourism or medical purposes. ESTA authorizes the travelers to stay for a maximum of 90 days in the US without having a visa.
The visitors should secure a valid ESTA prior to their travel. However, they must fulfill the other requirements (mentioned below) when applying for ESTA. If travelers still prefer to have a visa in their passport, they can apply for the visitor (B) visa.
There are 38 VWP participating countries including Finland, Australia, Switzerland, Singapore, Italy, New Zealand, Greece, Latvia, Japan, Ireland, Iceland, United Kingdom, Norway, and Portugal – among others.
In cases of British citizens, for applying for ESTA, they should have unrestricted permanent residency rights in the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man.
For traveling sans a visa on the VWP, the travelers must secure ESTA before they board a US-bound airplane or sea carrier.
ESTA is an online system that is managed by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for determining the eligibility of travels under the VWP to the US for various purposes – including business or tourism or medical ones.
ESTA registrations started from August 2008 onwards; however, authorization for travel became compulsory from January 12, 2009. After screening, the passengers can reuse ESTA for 2 years. Though, for land entry, they still have to fill the I-94 W paper form. Also, from April 2009 onwards, Greece citizens were granted 2-year valid ESTA.
Moreover, ESTA could be availed free from official government websites before September 8, 2010. Thereafter, as per the Travel Promotion Act, charges were levied. A portion of the fee was divided between both the Corporation for Travel Promotion and CBP’s administration fees.
After levying charges, John Bruton, who was the US’ EU Ambassador, opined that the number of tourists would not increase if they were charged to enter the US. Further, critics in the European Parliament believed that the charges would go towards funding US tourism ads.
As per November 2017 data, the VWP has 38 participating countries. ESTA permits travelers to stay in the US for 90 days or less. More so, ESTA holders can travel to the Caribbean Islands or Bermuda or Mexico or Canada, if they arrive via the US.
Only if arriving via sea or air, ESTA is a requisite. If arriving via land, then ESTA is not required. Similarly, if entering the US via ferries that operate between British Columbia (including Victoria and Vancouver) and Washington state, then ESTA is not needed as well.
Moreover, for dual citizens of specific countries, they have to apply for a regular tourist visa at the US foreign agency. These countries include Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran. ESTA for these countries was revoked in January 2016.
Other than that, if an ESTA holder has traveled to countries like Yemen or Sudan or Syria or Somalia or North Korea or Libya or Iraq or Iran after 1st March 2011, then their ESTAs will not be revoked. However, they could be refused entry by the CBP, except those travelers who qualify for a waiver.
The Secretary of Homeland Security grants waivers to the aforesaid groups on a case-by-case basis. Mainly, restrictions are waived if the authorities determine the waivers to be in line with US’ national security interests.
Generally, groups of travelers who are eligible for waivers include persons who have visited the stipulated countries on behalf of regional or international agencies; or are on official duty on behalf of a sub-national government or NGOs; or are journalists.
On September 16, 2016, the heads of the 27 EU member states approved the setting up the EU Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) in their Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap.
The residents of the 38 VWP countries can submit their online ESTA application 3 days prior to their US travel schedule. With ESTA, they can travel visa-free to the US. Also, 99% of the total applications received are approved within 5 seconds.
Nonetheless, for travelers who are not eligible for ESTA have to approach the US Consulate to submit their visa application. Applying for a visa is time-consuming and necessitates an interview with a US Consular Office.
Under VWP, entry is valid for a stay for a maximum period of 90 days in the US and adjoining countries. The duration of the stay under the program cannot be prolonged. The traveler has to apply for a visa to stay for over 90 days.
Keep in mind that ESTA holders are not guaranteed US entry. Only the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have the authority to determine the traveler’s eligibility to the US. Also, they have the powers to deny or cancel ESTA at any time of the individual’s stay if they have valid reasons for the same.
From December 2018, travelers have to apply at least 72 hours before traveling to the US. However, you must consider applying at least one month before you are traveling. Then, even if your ESTA authorization is denied, you can apply for a regular USA Visa.
Note that ESTA has two-year validity. Nevertheless, VWP travelers have to apply for a new visa if:
- they apply for a new passport, with the inclusion of temporary or emergency ones.
- they change their name
- they change their gender
- they change their country of citizenship
- they change your responses to any of the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions of their ESTA application
How to Apply for ESTA from Australia
If planning on traveling to the US via ESTA, you can apply for travel authorization online. Visit the application website https://www.myestavisa.com.au/ and click on the ‘Apply’ link after which the system directs you to a page containing the ESTA application form. Fill in the required details in the form and, then, proceed to make the payment via debit card or credit card. After completing your application, the authorities will process your application. Subsequently, they will mail you the ESTA authorization.
Note that ESTA application is to be completed by each person who is traveling to the US.
To apply for ESTA, you have to fulfill the following criteria.
- You are a citizen of a participant country under the VWP
- You do not have a Visitor’s visa currently
- You are traveling for a maximum of 90 days
- Your travel is for medical, tourism or business purposes
- You are applying for a new authorization for one single person or group of persons
Also, you need the following documents:
- Valid passport of a VWP participating country
- A valid debit or credit card
- Your contact details
- Your latest employment information, if any
How To Check Your ESTA Validity
Checking your ESTA validity is fairly easy. You can do that online on https://www.myestavisa.com.au/retrieve/. Here, you need only your passport details and a valid email. After paying the fee, you can retrieve your existing ESTA. Also, if you need to apply for a new ESTA, then visit https://www.myestavisa.com.au/apply-for-esta/, complete the needed information, make the payment, following which you can view your payment receipt.
To apply for ESTA, the applicants must possess a valid passport, having 6 months of validity after you plan to depart from the US. However, in some cases, individuals are exempted from this provision under country-specific agreements. Also, if traveling with family, each family member should have their passport.
Also, you should have a valid e-passport to enter the US via VWP. E-passports are improved secure passports having embedded electronic chips. The authorities scan the chips to match the traveler’s identity with their passport. More so, E-passports have to comply with the guidelines of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Also, if using a temporary or emergency transport to enter the US via VWP, you should have a valid e-passport.