What is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program is a new programme ran by the United States of America Department of Homeland Security. It aims to make travelling to the US easier by allowing citizens and nationals of certain countries to travel to the US for business or pleasure without the need to apply for a US visa. Instead, individuals can make an ESTA application (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), and automated programme for the US Visa Waiver, allowing applications for travel to be processed much more quickly and easily.
Which countries are signed up to the Visa Waiver Program?
The system applies to all citizens or nationals of the following countries: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. An ESTA application is mandatory for all people from these countries. At present, there is a process for new countries to be added to the list, but currently only individuals who own a passport from one of the above countries are able or required to make an ESTA application.
What’s the difference between an ESTA and a visa?
An ESTA visa is a simpler way to obtain authorisation to travel for business or pleasure to the United States of America without requiring an American visa. However, the two are not equivalent. Anybody in possession of a valid US visa is ineligible for the ESTA programme and can travel using their visa without the need to sign up through the Visa Waiver Program. In addition, in situations where a USA visa is legally required, such as for individuals who do not own a passport for an eligible country, an ESTA is not possible.
What are the other criteria for making an ESTA application other than nationality?
Individuals in possession of a passport from a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program will also need to be travelling to the US for business or pleasure for a period of no longer than 90 days. The automatic system will check things such as criminal records to determine whether or not the traveller would be considered a risk to the safety or security of the US while staying in the country. You will also be ineligible (and will not require an ESTA registration anyway) if you are already in possession of a valid ESTA or American visa.
Why else will I need to make an ESTA application?
The ESTA is not only required for those visiting the US but anyone boarding an aeroplane or vessel bound for the US. This means an ESTA application will also need to be made for anybody who is only passing through the US on their way to another country. Your ultimate destination and travel plans will need to be stated in your application when you register, although these will not need to be amended should they change after the application has been accepted.
Does the USA Visa Waiver Program cost money?
Yes, there will be a fee involved in handling your ESTA application. You will need to apply and pay online, and your application process can also be checked as it moves through the system. You can also sign up to apply and pay as a group if there are two or more of you travelling to the US at the same time.
Why is an ESTA required instead of just a visa?
The ESTA Visa Waiver Program helps to speed up the process of citizens of eligible countries travelling to the US, but also adds an extra layer of security with regulations on travel tightening up in recent years. The goal is to make early, easy, automated checks on whether travellers will be eligible to embark on a plane or vessel bound for the US based on their risks to the security or safety of the country. Accordingly, applicants will be asked questions on matters relating to previous criminal records or any issues with travel during the registration process, while automated checks are also carried out as the Department of Homeland Security communicates with the relevant authorities to determine if the traveller is eligible to travel to the United States of America or not.
How long does an ESTA application take?
In general, ESTA applications are extremely fast and applicants will be informed quickly after they submit their registration. However, the United States of America Department of Homeland Security recommends leaving an application to no later than 72 hours before the intended travel time. The application should be a simple process, and you are not required to have specific plans to travel to the US in order to submit one. If your travel plans then change, you will also not be required to send off a new application or amend your existing one. This ensures that if any traveller believes they may have cause to travel to the US at very short notice at a later date, they can make their ESTA application in advance in case it is required.
How long is an ESTA valid for?
ESTAs are generally valid for a period of two years, unless the passport used to make the application expires before that time. A new application will need to be made if the traveller legally changed his name, gender or nationality, obtains a new passport or any other circumstances asked during the registration process change in the intervening time period. This will require a complete reapplication for a US ESTA in order to obtain one valid for travel.
What information will I need to apply for an ESTA?
To apply for an ESTA you will required to disclose some information, such as your basic personal information such as name, date of birth, and your intended destination when you travel to the US. You will also require your passport information, and will be asked questions about any previous criminal convictions or issues with visas or travel previously.
Can a third party submit an ESTA application?
Yes, a third party such as a travel agent is permitted to submit an ESTA application on your behalf if you are unable, such as if you cannot speak English or lack access to the internet. The process will otherwise be exactly the same.
What happens if an ESTA is denied?
If the ESTA is denied during the application process, applicants will be eligible to re-apply after a period of ten days. However, since the process is largely automated, unless any of the circumstances from the original application have changed, this will not make any difference to the likelihood of the application being accepted or denied. Providing false information in an application can carry the penalty of rendering the applicant permanently ineligible for travel to the US.
Travellers can liaise with their embassies and consulates to resolve the issue, however it is not guaranteed that any reason will be provided for the rejection of an ESTA, or that any help to overcome the issues will be provided. The only alternative if an applicant has their ESTA denied is to seek out a United States of America Non-Immigration Visa