Electronic System for Travel Authorization
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). ESTA was mandated by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 for travelers from VWP countries arriving in the U.S. by air or sea. Authorization via ESTA does not determine whether a traveler is admissible to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers determine admissibility upon travelers’ arrival. The ESTA application collects biographic information and answers to VWP eligibility questions.
As of December 2018, it is strongly encouraged that ESTA applications be submitted at least 72 hours prior to travel, and travelers can apply as soon as they begin preparing travel plans or prior to purchasing airline tickets. Passengers (including babies) without an ESTA will be denied check in. In 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began charging a fee of US$14 per ESTA application. ESTA is also needed for visits to territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.
Passengers were able to sign up in August 2008, and the travel authorization became mandatory from January 12, 2009. Once pre-screened, passengers may reuse the ESTA approval for two years, although they may still need to complete the I-94W paper form for land entry. In April 2019, Greece was the last of the VWP countries where the citizens can get a two-year valid ESTA.
ESTA adds a requirement for pre-authorization to the existing Visa Waiver Program.
Since January 20, 2010, airlines have been forced (through fines) to require ESTA at check in.
Before September 8, 2010, ESTA was available for free from the official government websites. Since then, the Travel Promotion Act introduced a charge of $14. This is made up of $10 which goes to the Corporation for Travel Promotion and a $4 fee levied by the CBP for administration costs. The EU Ambassador to the United States John Bruton argued that it is illogical to think tourist numbers will go up if they are charged to enter the country. The charge has also been described by critics in the European Parliament as little more than a way to fund advertisements for United States tourism.
As of October 2021, 40 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program.
Visitors may stay for 90 days in the United States which also includes the time spent in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the islands in the Caribbean if the arrival was through the United States. The ESTA is only required if arriving by air or cruise ship. It is not required if arriving over land or on local ferries such as between British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria) and Washington state.
ESTA holders who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria had their ESTAs revoked in January 2016, and will be required to apply for a regular tourist visa at a US foreign mission. ESTA holders who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after 1 March 2011 will not have their ESTAs revoked, but will be refused entry if their travel is discovered by the CBP on arrival unless they qualify for a waiver. The Secretary of Homeland Security may waive these restrictions if he determines that such a waiver is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States. Such waivers will be granted only on a case-by-case basis. The Obama Administration identified several categories of travelers who may be eligible for a waiver, including individuals who traveled to these countries on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, and sub-national governments on official duty; on behalf of a humanitarian NGO on official duty; or as a journalist for reporting purposes. These categories were subsequently eliminated by the Trump Adminsitration in January 2017.
In 2018, the European Union decided to implement a similar system called European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). ETIAS is scheduled to become operational by the end of 2022.
British subject passport holders with permanent abode status (by having the vignette "The holder has the right of abode in the United Kingdom"  printed inside their passport) are for unexplained reasons not able to apply for entry into the US by using the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) programme to access the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), thus are forced to use the much more costly and time-consuming B1-B2 non-immigrant visa application process in order to gain basic tourist access to the U.S. This continues to cause confusion, as the ESTA website maintains contradictory information, allowing those who have "right of permanent abode" to use ESTA to obtain a VWP, yet at the same time denying British subject passport holders this privilege.
Applying for ESTA
In December 2018, CBP announced that instant ESTA approvals would not longer be available and reiterated that it "strongly encouraged" travellers to submit an online authorization request at least three days (72 hours) before travelling to the United States. However, CBP's website still says that "In most cases, a response is received within seconds of submitting an application."
If a traveller is not eligible for visa-free travel, they will need to apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate, which is a substantially lengthier process that may require an interview with a U.S. Consular officer. As a result, opponents claim the new rules will delay last-minute business travel.
Each travel authorization under ESTA can be valid for up to two years. However, a Visa Waiver Program traveler must obtain a new ESTA authorization if they are issued a new passport, or change their name, gender or country of citizenship. In addition, a traveler must obtain a new ESTA authorization if any answer to the ESTA application eligibility questions changes.
Entry under the Visa Waiver Program is only valid for a combined maximum stay in the US and its surrounding countries of ninety days. Admission period cannot be extended under the program. If a longer stay is intended, a visa is required.
ESTA does not guarantee entry to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers make final determination of admissibility (entry) to the United States and may cancel/deny ESTA at any time during travel, for example for suspicions of giving false information in the application.
The applicant has to give the following information:
- Full name and gender
- Other names or aliases, if any
- Date and city of birth (according to passport)
- Citizenship and passport country
- Other citizenship including historic, if any
- Passport number and expiration date
- Parents names, can be unknown
- Employers name and address, if any
- Emergency contact, name, phone and address
- U.S. point of contact information (a person or business or hotel one intends to visit)
- If being a member of the CBP Global Entry Program
- Applicants must also specify whether any of the following applies to them by way of yes/no radio buttons. Applications will be denied if the applicant has:
- A physical or mental disorder (posing a threat to others), or is a drug abuser, or currently has cholera, plague, smallpox, ebola, severe acute respiratory illnesses and some more listed
- Ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority
- Ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs
- Plans to engage in or having ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide
- Committed fraud or misrepresenting yourself or others to obtain, or assist others to obtain, a visa or entry into the United States
- An intention of seeking employment in the United States or was previously employed in the United States without prior permission from the U.S. government
- Been denied a U.S. visa, or been refused admission to the United States at a U.S. port of entry
- Previously stayed in the United States longer than the admission period
- Traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after 2011
Some websites offer to complete ESTA applications for a fee, often many times more than the required $14 fee charged by the US Government. Access and application through the official U.S. Government website are available to any passengers/visitors to the U.S. who qualify under the ESTA program. Prevention of such "ESTA fee scams" was made more difficult when the mandatory US Government fee was imposed, as previous public education efforts focused on getting out the message that ESTA applications were free of charge and anybody requesting payment was an unauthorized third-party. Third Party sites try to make themselves look legitimate by using official-sounding web addresses and posting logos that resemble the US government emblem. They may or may not contain a small disclaimer at the bottom of the page that says they are not associated with the US government.
Even if one of the third-party websites is used, passengers themselves still have to complete the same form. Concerns have been raised that third-party sites could be used for identity theft, credit card fraud, or the distribution of malware.
- "Home - Official ESTA Application Website, U.S. Customs and Border Protection". esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
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- "European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS)". European Commission. Retrieved August 15, 2021.
- "ESTA - Help - Who is eligible to submit an application? - Which Countries Participate In The Visa Waiver Program?". dhs.gov. Government of the United States. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
NOTE: British citizens only with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
- "ESTA - Help - About ESTA and The Visa Waiver Program - What Are The Passport Requirements For Travel Under The Visa Waiver Program?". dhs.gov. Government of the United States. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
NOTE: For citizens of the United Kingdom, only passports indicating British Citizenship are eligible to be used for travel under the Visa Waiver Program. A passport indicating that the bearer is a British Subject, British Dependent Territories Citizen, British Overseas Citizen, British National (overseas) Citizen or British Protected Person does not qualify for travel without a visa.
- "CBP Reminds Travelers to Allow 72 Hours for ESTA | U.S. Customs and Border Protection". www.cbp.gov.
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- Frequently Asked Questions: ESTA
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- "Beware of ESTA Scams". US Embassy in London. March 25, 2009. Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved November 12, 2010.