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A Guide to the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation)

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What You Need to Know

  1. ESTA is an electronic system that lets travellers know in advance whether they are allowed to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
  2. If you are travelling to the US by sea or air, then you will need an ESTA, even if you will only be passing through the country for a few minutes.
  3. Note, however, that having an ESTA does not mean you are automatically allowed to enter the US; customs officials still have the power to turn you away.
  4. All travellers need an ESTA, even young babies. So, if you are travelling with a partner and two children, all of you will need your own.
  5. The only way to get an ESTA is online. Fortunately, the official ESTA website is easy to use and the application process is quick and easy, so be wary of websites charging fees to take care of an application for you.
  6. More than 99 per cent of applications are processed in a matter of seconds. However, it's recommended you apply for an ESTA at least 72 hours before you plan to travel.
  7. As of 2012, an ESTA costs $14. Again, all travellers need their own ESTAs, so be sure to add this extra cost to your budget if you are planning a family holiday.

What is the ESTA?

ESTA, or the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation is an electronic system that lets travellers know in advance whether they are allowed to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Since the UK is part of the VWP, this means that you can know in advance if immigration officials in the US will let you into the country rather before you travel than running the risk of booking and paying for a holiday only to be turned away upon arrival.

This electronic system was introduced to replace the old system of filling out a green Visa Waiver form while flying to the US.

Note, however, that having an ESTA does not mean you are automatically allowed to enter the US; US Customs and Border Protection officials still have the power to decide whether you are allowed into their country or not, though, generally speaking, cases of travellers who have ESTAs being denied entry are extremely rare.

Will I Need One?

If you are a UK national travelling to the US by air or sea for 90 days or less, even if you will just be spending a few hours in transit in the country, then you will need an ESTA. Without one you will not be allowed to board your flight. Note that;

  • Both business and leisure travellers need an ESTA.
  • All travellers need an ESTA. So, if you are travelling with a partner and two children, all of you will need your own. Even babies will need their own ESTA, even if airlines allow them to fly without a ticket.
  • If you will be entering the US by land – that is from Canada or Mexico – you will not need an ESTA.

How to Get an ESTA

The only way you can get an ESTA is online, though the official ESTA website Here, you will be required to fill in a form, submitting your personal information and travel details. The form is simple and straightforward to fill out, but be sure to be as accurate as possible; if you make a mistake, you will have to wait 24 hours and then submit a new application. To fill in the ESTA form online, you will need;

  • Your passport number: Make sure your passport is up-to-date and will still be valid when you intend to travel.
  • Your personal details: Accuracy is key here, so be sure to set aside a few minutes to fill in the form without any distractions.
  • Details of any past convictions: Failing to declare past convictions, however minor, is the number one reason for travellers being turned back from the US. Even if you manage to get an ESTA, airport officials still have the right to turn you away if they find out you were economical with the truth.

Once you have filled the form, your application will generate one of three possible responses. These are:

  • Authorisation Approved: You are eligible to travel to the US. Remember, however, that this does not mean you have an automatic right to enter the country.
  • Authorisation Pending: This simply means that your application requires more time before a final decision on your eligibility to travel can be made. Generally speaking, this could mean an extra 24-72 hours.
  • Authorisation Denied: If your application is unsuccessful, you will need to apply direct to your nearest US embassy or consulate. They may be able to grant you a paper visa.

If your application is successful then you will be given a reference number. Be sure to make a note of this or better still, print off the application confirmation screen. If you have already booked your flights, the system will automatically contact the airline you are due to fly with. However, it's still a good idea to bring your reference number along to the airport with you.

How Much Does an ESTA Cost?

As of 2012, you will be required to pay a fee of $14 if your ESTA application is approved, and even if your application is rejected, you will have to pay a fee of $4. Note that the fee remains fixed in dollars and you cannot try and pay with pounds in order to get a better deal according to varying exchange rates.

Again, if you are travelling with a group or with your family, each of you will need your own ESTA. So, if you are travelling with your partner and two children, for example, you will need to factor an extra $56 into your holiday budget.

Time Considerations

According to the US Embassy in London, 99.6 per cent of ESTA applicants are given an answer within 4 seconds. However, the Embassy still advises that you apply at least 72 hours before you plan to travel.

If you are worried about being granted an ESTA – for instance, if you have past convictions or have been denied entry to the US before – it's highly recommended that you apply as soon as possible since it can take more than a month to get an appointment at the US Embassy for a paper visa.

The ESTA system accepts payment with Visa, Mastercard and American Express, though be aware that you may be required to pay extra charges, according to the terms and conditions of your credit card provider.

Renewing Your ESTA

As a rule, ESTAs expire either two years after being granted or when your passport expires, whichever is sooner.

Once your ESTA has expired, you will need to apply for a brand new one yourself, and this means starting the whole process again. You will also be required to apply for a new ESTA if you get a new passport.

Look Out for 'ESTA-Processing' Websites

A quick online search for ESTAs will bring up dozens of websites offering to take care of your application for you – for a fee, of course. Though not all of these are complete scams, they should be avoided. Above all, they are a waste of money. The ESTA application process is both quick and straightforward and so requires no expert help. Additionally, no website will be able to improve your chances of getting an ESTA.

Above all, there is no way of guaranteeing that an application made through a third-party website will be legitimate, so even if you get what looks like a genuine ESTA, you could get turned away once you land in the US.

Further Reading

  1. Apply for an ESTA though the official website.
  2. As well as knowing what you need before going away, it’s good to know the regulations in place regarding your return. Read our guide to what you can bring back from holiday for more.
Joe Donohue Joe Donohue

Very useful information in straightforward terms. Thank you.

Joe Donohue


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