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, ESTA applications must be submitted at least 72 hours prior to travel, though it is recommended that travelers 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.
ESTA is not needed when arriving by land from Canada or Mexico (because there is no check-in, but a I-94W paper form must be filled in).
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.
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 November 2017, 38 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, 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. As a general matter, categories of travelers who may be eligible for a waiver include 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.
Applying for ESTA
The U.S. Government recommends that travellers go online to submit an authorization request at least three days (72 hours) before travelling to the United States. This is not a requirement, and about 99% of applications are approved in 5 seconds. However, if a traveller is not eligible for visa-free travel, he or she 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 he or she is issued a new passport, or changes his or her 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 USA 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.
As of December 2018 ESTA is no longer approved in real-time to qualifying passengers and passengers are required to apply no later than 72 hours before departure.
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.
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.
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