1. Home
  2. Travel insurance
  3. Travel insurance guides

Travelling to the USA? Then don't forget ESTA

If you’re planning a trip to the good old US of A, there’s something new to add to your checklist of what not to forget before you leave.

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.

What is 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.

Is ESTA compulsory?

Yes. ESTA must be sought by all citizens of countries that have signed up to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

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 will have to be completed and approved before you travel to the United States.

Why has ESTA been introduced?

The US Department of Homeland Security – set up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – implemented ESTA to help stop undesirable citizens of 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 to the US homeland.

How do I apply?

The only way to apply is online. Go to the ESTA website and complete their 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 will generate one of three responses:

  • Authorisation Approved: You are cleared to travel to the United States;
  • Travel Not Authorised: You are 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 long does ESTA take?

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 is ESTA valid?

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 ESTA?

Although your ESTA application can be approved in seconds, it’s recommended that 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.

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 to travel immediately?

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

What happens if I arrive in the USA without ESTA?

Travellers who have not registered will not 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 find an internet point, get on the ESTA website and hope your application is approved immediately.

What does ESTA cost?

As of 8 September 2010, travellers will have to pay $14 or £9 to obtain an ESTA. On top of this, the form will need to be completed at least 72 hours before travel but it will be valid for two years.

The decision to charge for the ESTA is reportedly part of the US Senate’s plans to promote the USA as a tourist destination and the extra money raised by the charge will be used to fund this.

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

Travellers from Visa Waver Program countries heading for the United States will 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.

Spread the word – don’t go to the USA without ESTA, or holiday insurance!

Compare travel insurance

Get a quote

So if you’re off to the USA and you’ve read this article, you’ll know to sort out an ESTA before travelling.

However, as the Foreign Office is concerned that thousands of travellers could be turned away at US immigration because of their ESTA ignorance, you can do your bit by forwarding this article on to anyone that you know is planning a trip across the pond.