The US 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 for business visits or the B-2 visa for tourism.
- Get a travel authorization as part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
This article will go through the ESTA, what it is, its requirements, application process, and other details.
What is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)?
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an electronic program that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program.
The US 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 US even if they fulfill all the other requirements of the VWP.
The ESTA allows its holders to stay in the US for a maximum of 90 days. The ESTA is a document only for temporary stays and you do not qualify to stay longer than that. This is the main difference with the US Visitor Visas with which you are allowed to stay for 6 months and then extend your stay in the US.
ESTA is only a document that you can use to try to enter the US. 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 US for other activities, you must apply for a valid visa.
What are the Requirements of ESTA?
To qualify to get the ESTA, you must fulfill its requirements. You are allowed to apply for this travel authorization documents if you:
- Have citizenship of one of the 39 countries which are part of the Visa Waiver Program.
- Are planning to stay in the US for 90 days or less.
- Do not have a valid US visitor visa (B-1 visa or B-2 visa).
- Are traveling to the US 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 US.
To determine whether you are eligible for ESTA, you also can use our free evaluation form below:
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Who Can Apply for ESTA?
As of November 11, 2019, when Poland joined the Visa Waiver Program, the following are the countries whose citizens can apply for ESTA:
|Andorra (1991)||Australia (1996)||Austria (1991)|
|Belgium (1991)||Brunei (1993)||Chile (2014)|
|Czechia (2008)||Denmark (1991)||Estonia (2008)|
|Finland (1991)||France (1989)||Germany (1989)|
|Greece (2010)||Hungary (2008)||Iceland (1991)|
|Ireland (1995)||Italy (1989)||Japan (1988)|
|South Korea (2008)||Latvia (2008)||Liechtenstein (1991)|
|Lithuania (2008)||Luxembourg (1991)||Malta (2008)|
|Monaco (1991)||Netherlands (1989)||New Zealand (1991)|
|Norway (1991)||Poland* (2019)||Portugal (1999)|
|San Marino (1991)||Singapore (1999)||Slovakia (2008)|
|Slovenia (1997)||Spain (1991)||Sweden (1989)|
|Switzerland (1989)||Taiwan (2012)||United Kingdom (1988)|
In 2016, the US 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.
- Starting on August 06, 2019, travelers who have visited North Korea after March 01, 2011 will not be eligible for ESTA.
Do I Need to Apply for ESTA Even If I Want to Transit Through USA?
If you are a citizen of the countries in the VWP, then you must get an ESTA even for transit through the US. If you are going to Cuba for example, you must have a valid ESTA application to transit in the US.
How to Apply for ESTA?
The ESTA application is quite simple and can be summarized in a few steps. You must apply for ESTA through 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.
- Submit the necessary documents
- Make your payment.
- Wait for the application to process.
Completing the ESTA Form
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.
Submit the necessary documents
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 US.
- 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.
Pay the ESTA fees
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.
How Long is the ESTA Processing Time?
The ESTA application 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 72 hours.
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 will be ineligible for another ESTA application and have to apply for a Visitor’s visa.
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.
How Many Times Can I Enter the US With an ESTA?
The ESTA validity ensures that you can enter the US 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 US. So if you go to the US for 90 days and then travel again after 10 days back to the US, 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 US, but the advice is to wait for a reasonable amount of time.
Does Having a Valid ESTA Guarantee Entry Into the US?
Even if you have a valid ESTA, it does not guarantee entry into the US. That decision is up to the officials at the US port of entry. Both US visas and ESTA are only authorizations for you to travel to the US. Whether you are allowed into the country or not is at the discretion of border protection.
Can I Extend my Stay With an ESTA?
Unfortunately, if you enter the US with an ESTA, you will not be allowed to extend your stay. The maximum amount of time that you will be allowed to stay before your documents expire is 90 days.
Additionally, if you, for example, find a job and want to work in the U.S, you cannot apply to change your status. So if an employer is willing to sponsor you to an H-1B visa, you cannot accept the job since you will not be allowed to change your status while in the U.S. You must return to your home country and then apply for a different visa from there.
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 US, 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 US 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.