The U.S is a great place to visit for tourism or business, and even for other purposes such as medical treatment. There are two ways that people can do that:
- Get a US visitor visa such as the B-1 visa or the B-2 visa
- Get a travel authorization as part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
The Visa Waiver Program allows people from 38 countries to visit the U.S for up to 90 days. Only those who would have otherwise gotten a B-1 visa or a B-2 visa are allowed to get the travel authorization. If you want to study or work in the U.S, you must get the applicable visas and you cannot travel as part of the Visa Waiver Program.
This article will go through the ESTA, what it is, its requirements, application process, and other details.
What is ESTA?
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an electronic program that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the U.S under the Visa Waiver Program.
The U.S Department of Homeland Security introduced this system in 2009 to make travelling more secure and issue authorizations much faster. ESTA is the main requirement of the Visa Waiver Program, and those who do not have an approved or valid ESTA cannot enter the U.S even if they fulfill all the other requirements of the VWP.
To determine whether you are are eligible for ESTA, you also can use our free evaluation form below:
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The ESTA is a document which you must apply for and it takes minimal efforts and does not require as many documents as a visa application does. It simply submits the digital application and your information to the Department of Homeland Security where it is cross referenced with many databases. Based on that, it is determined whether it is safe for you to be able to travel to the U.S. The program checks whether the information you have entered is true, whether you have any criminal background and other details.
ESTA is only a document that you can use to try to enter the U.S. It is not a visa and cannot be used instead of a visa. It will only allow you to use it for tourism and business travel purposes, but if you need to go to the U.S for other activities, you must apply for a valid visa.
Additionally, if you are a citizen of the countries in the VWP, then you must get an ESTA even for transit through the U.S. If you are going to Cuba for example, you must have a valid ESTA application to transit in the U.S.
What are the Requirements of ESTA?
To qualify to get the US ESTA, you must fulfill its requirements. You are allowed to apply for this travel authorization documents if:
- You are a citizen of the 38 countries which are part of the Visa Waiver Program
- You are planning to stay in the U.S for 90 days or less
- You do not have a valid US visitor visa (B-1 visa or B-2 visa)
- You are travelling to the U.S for tourism or business
If you do not fulfill even one of these requirements, then you are not eligible to apply for the ESTA and must go through visa applications to be allowed to travel to the U.S.
IMPORTANT: Changes to the Visa Waiver Program in 2016
In 2016, the U.S started implementing a change in the Visa Waiver Program under the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”. Since then, certain travelers would no longer be eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
The following groups of people are affected by that change:
- Nationals of visa waiver countries who have been in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia or Yemen since March 01, 2011. It should be noted that there are some exceptions for diplomats and military personnel.
- Nationals of visa waiver countries who also hold a nationality of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.
Visa Waiver Countries List
As of February 28, 2014, when Chile joined the Visa Waiver Program, the following are the participating countries:
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How to Apply for ESTA?
The ESTA application is quite simple and can be summarized in a few steps. To start the ESTA visa application you must go to the Customs and Borders Protection website. There you will find the ESTA links and rules. You have the option of applying only for yourself as an individual or for a group of people. The group applications can usually be used for when you travel with family or friends together. To apply for the ESTA, there are three things that you have to do:
- Complete the ESTA form
- Make your payment
- Check back for your status
The ESTA form will inquire on your personal information and especially your passport identification numbers. This information is:
- Your name and last name
- Parent information
- Contact information
- Employment information, etc.
It then cross references that information to various legal databases to determine whether you are a security threat or not.
Due to this the documents that you need to apply for the ESTA are:
- A valid e-Passport for 6 more months after your intended departure from the U.S
- Valid payment method (VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, or PayPal)
After you enter your information and complete all the steps, you must wait for the application to be processed.
To avoid ESTA fraud please read the article here.
How Much Does ESTA Cost?
In order to apply for the ESTA, there is a cost that applicants must pay. The total ESTA cost is $14 per applicant. The fee is broken down in two parts:
- Processing Fee: is $4 per applicant and is charged to anyone who applies for the ESTA
- Authorization Fee: is $10 per applicant and is charged to anyone who gets an approval for their ESTA. If your ESTA is denied, then you will only have to pay $4 and the additional $10 is not charged to you.
Payment methods differ, but the system accepts only credit cards and PayPal, so make sure that you have one of these options to pay with.
The ESTA is comparably cheaper than applying for a visa which costs around $160 for the B-1 visa or the B-2 visa. That is why ESTA is much more preferred for short time travelers who are part of the US Visa Waiver Program.
What Can I Do With an ESTA?
The allowed activities under the VWP are:
- Negotiate contracts
- Consult with business associates in the U.S
- Settle estates
- Attend conferences, educational, professional, or business events
- Have a vacation in the U.S
- Tour various cities in the U.S
- Visit friends or family
- Participate in social events hosted by various organizations
- Visit the country for medical treatments
- Participate in events or contests related to music or sports, for which you will not receive payment
- Enroll in short study courses for which you will not receive credit (ex. cooking classes)
The activities that you are not allowed to do with a US visitor visa and under Visa Waiver Program are:
- Become a full or part time student
- Perform and get paid for it
- Work in press or journalism
- Engage in any form of employment
- Enter as a crewmember on an aircraft or ship
- Seek permanent residence in the U.S
To be able to travel to the U.S without a visa, you must meet the following requirements:
- Have an e-Passport
- Intend to return home once your 90 days of stay are completed
- Have a valid ESTA
How Long is the ESTA Processing Time?
The ESTA visa USA processing time is extremely short. In most cases, if your information does not reveal any potential security threats or previous criminal history, you will receive a response within seconds.
This is what makes the ESTA so beneficial in comparison to the US visitor visas. Instead of waiting for a few weeks or months for the visa to be processed, the ESTA response is fast and efficient. If you are denied the ESTA, you can try to see what the reason was and apply again.
How Long is ESTA Valid for?
The question of how long does and ESTA last and whether your ESTA is still valid is extremely important in terms of planning your travels. If your ESTA is approved after application, it will either be valid for 2 years or until your passport expires. If your passport will expire before 2 years have passed, then the ESTA will be valid until that date.
The ESTA validity ensures that you can enter the U.S multiple times and stay for the intended 90 days. However, you must make sure to not make your visits too frequent and not raise suspicions about whether you are actually living in the U.S. So if you go to the U.S for 90 days and then travel again after 10 days back to the U.S, you will raise suspicion with the Customs and Border Protection officials and they might deny your entry. There is no specific number of days that you must wait before you travel again to the U.S, but the advice is to wait for a reasonable amount of time.
Even if you have a valid ESTA, it does not guarantee entry into the U.S. That decision is up to the officials at the U.S port of entry. Both visas and the ESTA are only authorizations for you to travel to the U.S. Whether you are allowed into the country or not is at the discretion of border protection.
When Should I Renew the ESTA?
If your ESTA has expired after 2 years of validity or your passport is no longer valid and you want to travel to the U.S, you must renew your ESTA. Additionally, if new information is added on the databases about you that increases your security risk, then your ESTA might be revoked at any time.
This means that to renew your ESTA, you must apply for a new one. Besides those two instances, you need to renew your ESTA if the following happen:
- You get a new passport
- You change your name
- You change your gender
- You change your country of citizenship
- You become convicted of a crime or any other circumstances change that make it necessary for you to reapply for the ESTA
The ESTA renewal is the same as applying for it and you must go through the same process.
Do Children Need an ESTA?
ESTA is a necessary authorization for anyone who is planning to travel to the U.S on the Visa Waiver Program. This includes people of all ages, beginning with infants, children, adults, and the elderly. There are no exceptions and even children who do not necessarily need to have a passport yet, must have an approved ESTA.
For these situations, parents are advised to start group applications and include their children too. The same procedures apply for everyone and applying for children is the same as applications for adults.