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Travelling to the USA? Then don't forget ESTA

If you’re planning a trip to USA, aside from your passport, dollars and the ‘three Ts’ (that’s ticket, toothbrush and travel insurance), visitors from Britain have to go online and fill in the ESTA form before travelling.

A view of New York


What is an ESTA?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) is a web-based system used to determine the right of visitors 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 – set up after the 9/11 attacks – 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. ESTA is not intended to restrict commerce or tourism, but to filter out those people considered to be a security risk.


Do I need an ESTA to travel to the USA from the UK?

Yes. ESTA must be sought by all citizens of countries that have signed up to the VWP. 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 such a country, the online ESTA form has to be completed and approved before you travel to the United States.


How to apply for an ESTA

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.


The 3 ESTA responses

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.

How much is an ESTA?

It costs $14 or £9 to obtain an ESTA. 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).


How long does it take to get an ESTA?

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).


How long does an ESTA last?

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.


When should I apply for an ESTA?

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

In fact, you may want to 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.

As an aside, it may also be worth looking at what the best day to book a holiday is, too, as you could save money. 

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.


What if I need a last-minute ESTA?

ESTA is not about restricting commerce or tourism – it is intended that last minute and emergency travellers should be accommodated.

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. 


What happens if I arrive in the US without an ESTA?

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.


Do I still need to fill in the green immigration form?

Travellers from VWP countries heading for the United States should be familiar with the small green card (form I-94) that was required to be filled in before hitting passport control. The ESTA replaces the need to fill in this form. 

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