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Travelling to the USA? Then don't forget an ESTA

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If you’re planning a trip to USA, you'll need to make sure you've completed the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). We'll explain everything you need to know.

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The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) is a web-based system used to determine whether visitors have the right to travel to the United States.

What ESTA isn’t, is authorisation to enter the United States. The final decision to authorise entry rests with Customs and Border Protection officers at the point of entry.

The US Department of Homeland Security implemented ESTA in 2009 to help stop undesirable citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries from entering America.

Currently, the US welcomes around 50 million people a year from these countries. It's also not intended to restrict commerce or tourism, but to stop people considered to be a security risk entering the country.

Yes. All citizens of countries that have signed up to the VWP must get an ESTA. Other countries include Greece, Germany, France, New Zealand and Japan.

This program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the US for up to 90 days without a visa. As Britain is part of the VWP, the online ESTA form has to be completed and approved before you travel to the United States.

The only way to apply is online. Go to the ESTA website and complete the application form. As long as you have your passport details to hand it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

Your application generates one of three responses:

  • Authorisation Approved: You're cleared to travel to the United States
  • Travel Not Authorised: You're not cleared to travel to the US and should apply for a paper travel visa at a US Embassy or Consulate
  • Authorisation Pending: Your application requires more time before a decision can be made.

It costs $21 or £17 to obtain an ESTA at the time of writing. You can pay on the website, with a credit or debit card or with Paypal. If your application is rejected you’ll only pay $4 (£2.30).

Once an ESTA form has been submitted, the application is then queried against US law enforcement databases. However, this only takes a few seconds, with the vast majority of applications determined within 4 seconds (99.6% approved in this time according to the US Embassy in London).

The ESTA is valid for up to two years (less if your passport expires within two years) and allows for multiple entries of up to 90 days each into the United States. If you receive a new passport during the two-year entry period, you must reapply for ESTA approval.

It's recommended you apply at least 72 hours before departure.

But really, you should apply as soon as you decide on travel dates, just in case your travel authorisation is denied. This is because it can take up to six weeks to get an appointment at the US Embassy for a visa.

You should also apply for ESTA before paying for your trip, just in case travel authorisation is denied.

In certain circumstances it may be worthwhile applying for ESTA even if you don’t have specific plans to travel to the US.

If, for example, the nature of your work requires last-minute travel to America, as ESTA is valid for two years, you may want to apply for authorisation in anticipation of future travel.

Even though the online form asks for your airline, flight number and hotel in the US, this information is optional and won’t stop the application being processed.

Last minute and emergency travellers should be be able to get an ESTA.

There may be occasions where you need to fly at the last minute, such as for business trips or if a relative is unwell.

Most applications are quick to process and this shouldn't be an issue, just try to apply at least 72 hours before you travel if possible.

Travellers who have not registered won't be allowed to clear immigration and risk being detained and/or sent back home.

In fact, travellers without ESTA approval may even be denied boarding at point of departure. The thing to do in this case is to quickly access the internet, get on the ESTA website and hope your application is approved immediately.

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