ESTA stands for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization and is part of the United States Department of Homeland Security. ESTA is an automated system that helps determine eligibility for travel to the US under the Visa Waiver program (VWP). ESTA doesn't determine admissibility as US Customs and Border Protection officers still determine that upon arrival.
Travelers Who Need ESTA Approval
Travelers who enter the United States by air or sea under the Visa Waiver Program are required to have a valid ESTA authorization. This helps Homeland Security pre-screen travelers to the US before they leave their departure country. It's recommended that travelers apply for the authorization at least 72 hours in advance. It's important to note that you must apply for ESTA even if you are only connecting on a flight through the U.S.
According to the Customs and Border Control website, the "Implementing Recommendations" of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (9/11 Act) amended section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) required the Department of Homeland Security to implement an electronic travel authorization system or other measures to enhance the security of the VWP. ESTA adds a second layer of security that allows Homeland Security to determine whether a person's travel to the U.S. poses a law enforcement or security risk.
Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
The U.S. Government has the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in place to enable citizens and nationals from certain countries to enter the U.S. for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. The benefit is the ability to travel to the U.S. on short notice without the need to apply for a visa. As of January 12, 2009, 38 countries are approved under the VWP. Citizens of these countries need to apply for ESTA authorization in advance while an I-94W is normally completed while flying or at the U.S. port of entry.
Current countries under the VWP include:
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
It should be noted that the U.S. may add and remove countries at any time. Argentina and Uruguay were recently removed, while Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta. Slovakia, and South Korea were recently added.
As of April 1, 2016, travelers under ESTA must have an e-Passport, which is one with an embedded chip. It's easy to note whether you have one or not, as it has a unique international symbol on the front. The chip has important information stored on it, including the passport holder's name, date of birth, and other biographic information.
Applying for ESTA Authorization
As the ESTA application is available on the internet, the entire application can be submitted entirely online, and you won't have to go into an embassy or consulate to complete the process.
There are multiple sites that look like the official government ESTA application site, but they charge an additional fee to file your paperwork, sometimes a hefty fee well beyond the application cost itself. The official link for ESTA applications has a ".gov" in it and is part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.
Who You Are
To qualify for ESTA, you must meet the following requirements.
- You are a citizen or eligible national of a Visa Waiver Program country.
- You are not currently in possession of a visitor's visa.
- Your travel is for 90 days or less.
- You plan to travel to the U.S. for business or pleasure.
- You want to apply for a new ESTA for one person or a group of applications for two or more people.
What You Need
To apply for ESTA, you need the following information.
- Valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program country
- Valid credit card (MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover, JCB, or Diners Club) or PayPal to pay the $14 US fee per application
- Contact information
- Most recent employment information
According to the website, it should take approximately 20 minutes to finish your ESTA application. It's important to note that an ESTA doesn't replace a visa and doesn't work the same way from a legal standpoint.
In many cases, the system returns an application status immediately. In instances where more time is needed, the system will usually return an application status within 72 hours. To check on the status, go to the ESTA website and click "check ESTA status." You'll need your application number, passport number, and birth date to check the status.
You can expect one of three responses when you check for status.
- Travel Not Authorized: You are not authorized to travel to the U.S. under the VWP. You may need to obtain a visa which you can confirm on the Department of State website. This doesn't deny you entry to the U.S.; it only prohibits you from traveling to the U.S. under the VWP.
- Authorization Pending: Your authorization is under review because an immediate decision has not yet been made. It doesn't necessarily mean anything negative, just that more information is needed.
Tips for ESTA Applications
You must disclose any prior arrests, no matter where they happened in the world. You must also disclose any immigration issues you've encountered, like a prior denial of a U.S. visa or if you were ever denied entry into the U.S. Otherwise, it could be construed as fraud.
Don't spend the extra money on third-party application processes as noted previously, especially since some people note they have been scammed. Many of the sites look like government official pages, but unless it has ".gov" in the address and the current fee is only $14, you are likely on a third party agency site. The same goes for retaining the services of an immigration attorney. You should not need an attorney unless you have been arrested or experienced immigration issues in the past, in which case you may need assistance from a licensed attorney in your state.