US Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)

What is ESTA?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an electronic document issued by the United States Department of Homeland Security. It serves as an authorization for travelers from specific participating countries who intend to visit the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). ESTA acts as a pre-screening requirement to determine the eligibility of individuals before their trip, ensuring compliance with the VWP regulations. It simplifies the entry process for eligible travelers by replacing the previous paper-based forms.

The ESTA was introduced back in 2008 in order to supplement the security of the Visa Waiver Program. With the ESTA as the main component or document of the Visa Waiver Program, the U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was handed an additional tool to research and inspect potential travelers wanting to enter the United States on the Visa Waiver program, and to decide if those foreign natural potentially were a threat or security risk to the United States.

Lastly, it is also important to mention that the ESTA is not a visa, but rather a document that can be used to help its holders enter the United States for specific purposes and for a set amount of time. An ESTA is only valid for tourism and business travel purposes, and it cannot be used for work purposes.

Who can apply for ESTA?

Unfortunately, not all nationalities can apply for the ESTA through the Visa Waiver Program. In order to apply for the ESTA, you must be a citizen or national of a Visa Waiver Program Designated Country as defined by the United States government. These nationalities or countries include:

Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, IrelandItalyJapanLatviaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMaltaMonacoNetherlandsNew Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom

It is also important to note that in recent years, the United States Department of Homeland Security has made some changes regarding eligibility for the ESTA, even for people who are citizens of the above-mentioned countries. Specifically, citizens or nationals of the visa waiver countries who have recently visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia or Yemen since March 1st of 2011 may no longer be eligible for the ESTA. Similarly, citizens or nationals of the above-mentioned visa waiver countries who are dual citizens from the countries of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria may also be vetted from pursuing the ESTA. For example, a UK citizen who is also a passport-holding citizen of Syria, may be prohibited from getting the ESTA.

Required documents for ESTA application

If you are a citizen or a national of one of the countries listed above, you will need to obtain and prepare a long list of necessary documentation in order to receive the ESTA. The requirements for the ESTA application include:

Valid Passport

Applicants must possess a valid passport issued by a country within the Visa Waiver Program. The passport should maintain validity for at least 6 months beyond the intended arrival date in the United States.

Valid Email Address

A valid email address is required for communication purposes and to receive notifications related to the ESTA application process. It's important to note that the provided email address will need to be verified during the application process.

Debit/Credit Card Payment

To finalize the ESTA application process, applicants are required to make the payment using a valid debit or credit card. It's essential to ensure that the payment is successfully verified as a part of the application. Alternatively, other methods such as PayPal may also be used for payment.

How to apply for the ESTA

Once you have determined that you are eligible for the US ESTA and have collected the required documentation, you can then begin the ESTA application process. The application process for the ESTA can generally be broken down into three separate steps:

  1. Completion of the online ESTA form

    The ESTA form can be found on the US Customs and Borders Protection website. Depending on your travel situation and preferences, you can choose to fill out the ESTA either as an individual, or as a group/family unit. In order to fill out the ESTA, you will need to have on hand information regarding your personal details, basic information regarding your parents, your contact information, employment history, etc. Once you fill out that information, the ESTA form will automatically cross-reference your information with algorithms and online databases to determine whether or not you pose a specific security threat.

  2. Submit the necessary documents

    Once you have filled out the ESTA application, you will also be required to upload/submit other supporting documentation, including your valid e-Passport with at least six months of validity and a valid payment method (more on this below).

  3. Make the required payment for the US ESTA

    The fee for the ESTA is currently $21 (a $4 processing fee and an additional $17 authorization fee if you are approved. Valid online payment methods include VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and PayPal.

US Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)

ESTA processing time

After you finish applying for the ESTA, you will need to wait for your US ESTA application to process. In the vast majority of cases wherein the information you submitted does not raise any red flags for the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), you can expect a response with 72 hours. For people who have a past criminal history, you should expect the processing period to be a bit longer. Furthermore, if you (or your immediate family) have a travel history that has taken you to certain parts of the world that are considered high risk areas, this could also prolong the processing period.

ESTA fee and payment methods

As we mentioned above, the US ESTA costs a total of $21. This fee is broken down into two parts: a $4.00 processing fee that you must pay even if you are denied, and a $17 authorization fee if you are accepted. In the rare case where an ESTA applicant is denied, the $17 will be refunded to you. Valid online payment methods for the US ESTA include VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and PayPal. It is also important to note that the US ESTA fees are significantly lower than other types of US visas. For example, the application fee for the US B1/B2 visa is $160, and that fee is entirely non-refundable, even if the applicant is denied. If your country does participate in the United States Visa Waiver Program, it is generally significantly cheaper to receive the needed documentation in order to enter the US.

ESTA validity and duration of stay

Unlike other types of tourist visas and work visas, the ESTA has a significantly shorter validity period. The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) allows its possessors to physically stay in the United States for up to 90 days. It is important to note that the length of stay for an ESTA may be significantly shorter than other types of tourist visas. For example, the B1/B2 visa can allow a 180-day length of stay period. Furthermore, whereas some types of US visas allow for extensions, the ESTA is specifically given for temporary stays. Thus, people from the participating countries who are granted an ESTA can only stay for a maximum of 90 days in the United States, and your visit can only be for tourism or business purposes. You cannot legally work in the United States and receive remuneration with an ESTA.

In most cases, when an ESTA application is approved, it will remain valid either for a two-year period, or until your current passport expires. If your passport will expire before the two years have passed, then the ESTA will be valid only until that date. This is important to note, as this is generally not the case with other types of tourist visas wherein the visa is still valid even if your current passport has expired.

Traveling to the US with ESTA

Once you are granted an ESTA in order to travel to the United States, it is important to ensure that you follow all necessary rules and regulations. Here are a few tips and guidelines for travelers with an ESTA:

  • Make sure that your passport is valid and in a legible state to ensure easy passage through customs and border control.
  • Make sure that you complete your ESTA application at least seventy-two hours in advance of your planned travel to the United States. Currently, the US government is not allowing for real-time approvals for ESTA.
  • Though you don’t necessarily need to print your ESTA, the US Department of Homeland Security recommends that you print and carry with you your ESTA application response for any potential hiccups in your travel.
  • If you enter the United States with the ESTA under the Visa Waiver Program, you can also take advantage of your vacation and take a short trip to Canada, Mexico, or a nearby island. In general, you will be able to be readmitted to the United States without any problem under the VWP for the remainder of the original 90 days.

ESTA Renewal or Extension

Once approved, your ESTA will be valid for two years, or until your current passport expires. With your ESTA, you will be able to enter the United States for multiple visits up to the allotted 90 days. In general, it is a good idea to not visit too frequently with an ESTA to avoid suspicion regarding your permanent residence in the United States. For example, if you travel to the USA for 90 days with your ESTA, leave for 5 days, and then return for another 90 days, this may raise suspicion with the US Customs and Border Protection, and may affect your entry into the United States in the future.

As we mentioned above, the maximum amount of time you can stay in the US with an ESTA is 90 days. Extensions for time in the United States are not available with an ESTA.

Once your ESTA has expired, or if your current passport has expired you will need to renew your US ESTA. Also, if any new information regarding your potential security risk becomes publicly available, you will also need to renew your ESTA. For example, if you were recently incarcerated, you will most likely need to reapply for an ESTA. Other instances when you may need to renew or reapply for a US ESTA include:

  • If you lose your passport and have to get a new one.
  • Name or gender changes.
  • Changes to your country of citizenship.
  • Conviction of a crime.

What happens if your ESTA application is refused?

If your ESTA application is refused or denied by the US government, this generally is because you either did not meet the above-mentioned requirements, or the system and database determined that you posed a significant security risk. Some common circumstances wherein a US ESTA application may be rejected include:

  • Serious criminal records or past convictions;
  • Past ESTA rejections or US Visa rejections;
  • Overstaying the 90-day validity period during past visits to the US;
  • Having been discovered working without required work visa.

If you are denied a US ESTA visa, you can attempt to apply again, or choose to apply for an alternative visa such as the US B1/B2 business and tourism visa. Though the process for a tourist visa is more costly and time consuming, you may be able to state your case during the interview process and provide further documentation proving your case.

US Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)

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