Things I should know about the ESTA
Travelling to and through the United States of America, whether as a tourist, visiting friends and family, or on business, has always been a relatively simple matter. However, in order to guarantee everyone’s safety and security, since 9/11 security checks have had to be tougher, longer and more exhaustive, and additionally an entry fee is charged, which goes towards funding tourism initiatives to the States. Now, for anyone wishing to travel to or through the USA, an ESTA is mandatory. Having said that, completing the form is easy and processing usually very quick – often only a matter of seconds.
What is an ESTA?
ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, and is part of the post-September 11th 2001 system that was set up in 2010 to greatly increase security screening of all travellers to the USA arriving from countries included in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), of which the UK is but one. The VWP is administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), enabling entitled travellers to visit the USA for tourism or business for up to 90 days without an additional visa.
Who needs an ESTA?
Anyone travelling to the USA as a tourist or on business for 90 days or less, or even passing through the USA in transit, must have an ESTA, otherwise they will not be allowed to board their plane or ship. Even babies not requiring a ticket must have a valid ESTA. Only those travellers arriving by land via Mexico or Canada are exempt from the ESTA requirement.
How do I apply for an ESTA?
Applications can only be made online. It involves simply filling in an ESTA form which includes details such as your passport number, name, DOB, address, travel details as well as any criminal convictions.
How much does an ESTA cost?
The processing and awarding of the ESTA itself costs $14 (or about £9) made up of a $4 processing fee, and a $10 authorisation fee, which would be reimbursed in the event your ESTA application is refused.
How long is an ESTA valid for?
Normally, an ESTA is valid for two years, or until the passport you are using expires – whichever comes first. However, in the event you change your name, gender, country or citizenship status or any other detail recorded on your passport, or your response to any of the ESTA questions (such as a later criminal conviction), you need to re-apply before the two years lapses. If you are still in the USA when your ESTA expires, that’s fine, but you must reapply upon your return home.
If I have more than one passport, do I have to use the one entered on my ESTA application?
As of April 1, 2016, all travellers must have an e-passport to use the VWP. An e-Passport is an enhanced secure passport with an embedded electronic chip. The passport you use to travel with must correspond to the passport number and details submitted on your ESTA form.
How long does an ESTA take to process?
Ideally, you should allow 72 hours, but it is recommended you apply as early as possible. You will be given a confirmation number which you need to keep with you, or even better, print out the confirmation page. If your are denied Travel Authorisation, you would need to apply for a visa at a US embassy or consulate, which can take weeks to process.
If I have received ESTA approval, do I still need to fill out an I-94W?
An I-94W (or “green form”) is now only required at land borders so no, you do not have to fill out a form on the ship or plane. Your ESTA is your prior approval to enter the USA.
Can I apply for an ESTA without having prior travel arrangements?
Yes, you can. You will be able to submit or change any itinerary on a current travel authorisation because ESTA is designed so that you can update a valid travel authorisation. You do not need to have already arranged a flight booking or hotel reservation to initially apply for an ESTA.
What happens if my ESTA application is refused?
In the event that you receive a travel not authorised response, it does not automatically mean you cannot enter the US. Refusal may be on the grounds of ineligibility under the VWP due to former convictions or nationality. However, you could apply for a visa. More information is available here.