If you belong to a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) of the United States, you are eligible for ESTA. The “Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)”, eliminates the need for a visa from the consulate in your country if you are visiting the US for less than 90 days, and is mandatory whether you travel by sea or air. You will need an ESTA if you are going for business, tourism or transit.

With this authorisation, you are allowed to depart for the United States, however it does not guarantee entry upon arrival because that depends on the immigration officers present at entry points. Citizens of 38 different countries qualify for ESTA, but there may be other conditions that affect your eligibility. These places include most European countries, Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Singapore among others. The US Department of Homeland Security runs this online travel authorisation system and approves ESTA applications.

It only takes about ten to twenty minutes to fill out the online application, but make sure you have all the required information readily available and check that you have accurately typed it into the online form. Submit your application and then make the necessary payment for the authorisation. If approved, your travel authorisation will be emailed to you approximately an hour after you submit the application (in some cases it may take up to 72 hours to be approved). This is made possible by instant data checks performed by the US Customs and Border Protection.

ESTA authorisations have a two-year validity period, but if your passport expires before that date, then your ESTA will also simultaneously expire. If your ESTA number is lost at any point during the two years that your ESTA is valid, your data is safely kept on record for that period. You can call or email for support at all hours, and you will be kept updated and notified about your application status through emails. ESTA forms are processed through verification and by reviewing the data you submit within 72 hours. If you plan to travel with family or friends, you can complete your application first, and simply help others later.

There are basically four steps to applying for ESTA. First, you need to fill in the application form in two steps. Second, you must confirm that the data you have entered is accurate. Third, your payment for the ESTA needs to be made by debit and/or credit card. Lastly, all you need to do is wait for the email that contains your ESTA authorisation (you might want to check your spam folder as well).

Read on to learn more in this ESTA application guide.

Quick links

 

US Statue of Liberty

 

Differences between ESTA and the B1/B2 visa

The conventional way of visiting the United States for tourism or business is to obtain a B1 or B2 visa. This can be time-consuming and is a more complex method. This is why the Visa Waiver Program was introduced. To simplify the process for certain countries and allow them to get authorisation more quickly. Sometimes however, even people eligible for the ESTA may need a B1/B2 visa. For instance, if they need to stay longer than three months or do not possess an e-passport.

While the ESTA application is entirely conducted online, the traditional visa needs a follow-up of the application and an interview at the consulate. ESTA costs $14 (but may increase if you use a third-party processing service) and can be applied for 72 hours before you plan to leave. But you need to pay a fee of up to $160 for a B1/B2 visa and it can take multiple weeks to complete the process.

 

Eligibility requirements

ESTA applications can only be made by VWP eligible citizens who possess an e-passport. This passport is identifiable by the symbol present on the cover and is a secure passport that contains an electronic chip.

  • To be eligible for the ESTA authorisation, you must be someone who does not already have a visitor’s visa. Only citizens who are eligible to enter the United States without a visa can get an ESTA.
  • Your trip to the US cannot be more than 90 days long.
  • Your purpose of visiting could be for either business, transit or tourism, but you cannot work in the US.
  • You need either a single ESTA for yourself, or you need to fill in multiple forms for the same trip because you are traveling with a group.
  • You cannot leave an application incomplete or save it for completing at a later time. It needs to be completed in one session, otherwise you will need to start all over again.
  • Your eligibility for ESTA may be adversely affected if you have visited Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria and/or Somalia at any point since March 2011.

The fee for one ESTA application is $14-$90, depending on which company you use. Visit this page to confirm the status of your registration using the reference number that is emailed to you. This will help you ensure that they have accurate information and that you have been registered properly.

After submitting the application, it is recommended to check your email, however it may take up to 72 hours to receive confirmation. Remember to write down the application number if you plan to return to the website later to check the status.

In the event of a denial of the ESTA authorisation, you will need to apply for a visa to enter the United States. The Customs and Border Patrol does not reveal reasons for denial due to privacy and security laws. When an application is denied, $4 are still charged by the official system from the payment you made and the remaining $10 will be returned to you.

When the expiration date of your ESTA is near, you may want to submit a new application. You can reapply by visiting the homepage. You can travel to the US however many times you need to during the entire period that your ESTA is valid, but you cannot stay longer than 3 months and are not allowed to get employed in the US while there.

 

Required Information

  • You must possess a valid e-passport that shows that you are a citizen of one of the countries that participates in the Visa Waiver Program.
  • A valid credit card can be used to make the payment for your ESTA application (MasterCard, American Express, Discover and VISA are all accepted).
  • You need to have an email address, enter all your contact information correctly, and you must also disclose information on your recent employment (if applicable).
  • You should know your expected travel date, address of your hotel or place of stay, as well as the address of an organization/individual you will be visiting.

Machine readable passport

You may need to prepare in advance to answer questions appropriately. While you will be able to enter basic information such as your passport number, address etc. right away, you might need to ensure that other things such as your contacts in the United States and employment data are readily available to be entered in the form. You are unlikely to have all your employer’s details and work history memorized so have the information at hand. You must also disclose the location you will be visiting and staying at during the trip. It is best to have some contact details of people you will meet in the US. Most importantly, remember that it is also possible to enter “UNKNOWN” as answer to a question if you have no information to fill in. If it is at all possible to acquire the necessary data, it is advisable to try to obtain it. Because there is no certainty whether answering with “unknown” affects your chances of gaining approval or not.

 

There are four steps to filling out the ESTA form:

  1. Applicant information and eligibility questions – You must provide information about your family name, passport, email, and complete the eligibility questions to determine whether you are eligible for a visa waiver.
  2. Additional information – In this section you will need to provide info on other passports you may have, your purpose of traveling to the US, your contacts inside the country, and where you will be staying.
  3. Payment – In this section you can insert the credit/debit card information and pay for the application.
  4. Confirmation – This section concludes the ESTA application. It confirms that the application was submitted for review and processing.

For the eligibility questions, you should be fine if your answers to these all are “no”. If any of the statements are applicable for you, there are chances your application will be rejected and you will need to visit the US embassy for a visa. (Refer to the image below to get an idea of the kind of questions you are required to answer for eligibility).

 

Let’s take a look at the ESTA application form so that you have a better idea of what kind of information you will need to provide:

Step 1

Step 1 A

Step 1 B

Step 1 C

Step 2

Step 2 A

Step 2 B

Step 2 C

Step 3

Step 3

Step 4

Step 4 will show you a confirmation of your processing request. Approved applications are sent in PDF format by email within 72 hours.

After submitting your application, you can check the status of your ESTA, review the information you entered in the form, make changes to applications or enter updated data into approved applications. And lastly, you are also able to see your payment receipt. Applicants have the option to separately check individual statuses.

It is even more important to have all the passports and other required information beside you if you are filling out forms on behalf of family members or friends. The application form cannot be kept open for an unlimited duration and the session will expire if you take too long to enter all the details. If this happens, you will need to open a new form and start over.

After you have successfully submitted an application and made the payment for processing, you can easily check your ESTA status online for updates by entering your application number.


References

  1. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (2019). Travel. Gathered from U.S Customs and Border Protection: https://www.cbp.gov/travel
  2. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (2019). ESTA. Gathered from Department of Homeland Security: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/
  3. U.S. Department of State. (2019). Visitor Visa. Gathered from U.S. Department of State: https://travel.state.gov