Getting an ESTA for US travel shouldn’t be daunting or confusing, but many people get caught out!
This guide is mainly aimed at UK citizens travelling to the US although information should be the same or similar if you’re travelling from other countries. Please check the Homeland Security website for further information.
If you’re planning on travelling to the US by air or sea, even if you’re just passing through, you’ll need to complete an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) form in advance of your travel. If you cross a land border, via Canada or Mexico, then you need to complete a handwritten I-94W form, costing $6 per person, unless you already have an approved ESTA.
I’m going to explain what an ESTA is, how to avoid paying more than the official $14-per-person fee, how to get it, how long it lasts for and what to be wary of. So first… what is an ESTA?! In short, ESTA is an online system that tells you in advance whether you’re eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). It permits citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.
Back before the implementation of ESTA, you used to fill in a green form whilst you were in the air. The trouble with that method is that you would only find out once you have arrived in the US whether you would be allowed in.
By completing an ESTA, you’ll know in advance whether you have qualified to travel or not. Remember, applying for an ESTA doesn’t mean you’re automatically allowed to enter the USA. If you’re approved, it just means that you’re ‘eligible to travel’. The US Customs and Border Protection officer is the one who actually decides whether he/she lets you in or not.
SOME IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER
- You MUST complete an ESTA, even if passing through. Apply before you book your flights or accommodation. This way, if you do happen to get rejected, you won’t lose any money you spent on the flight or hotel!
- You can only fill it out online
- It costs $14 ($4 if you’re rejected), but ensure you pay the cheapest way. The fee will be charged in USD so make sure you’re using a card which minimal fees etc – we highly recommend Monzo. Take a look at our review here.
- Watch out for official looking fake/scam ESTA sites, there are loads and they look really convincing! The charge their own fee for submitting the application on your behalf. Madness! The best thing to do is use this link as it’s the official site – ESTA web page.
- You’ll need a new one after two years – An ESTA lasts for two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. Once it runs out, you’ll need to apply for a new one – it doesn’t renew!
- You must have an e-Passport to get an ESTA
HOW TO APPLY
Visit the US Department of Homeland Security’s special ESTA web page.
You’ll be asked for your contact details, including passport number and expiry, plus the address where you’ll be staying. Obviously if you’re applying before booking your accommodation, you can add or amend this at a later time but some approximate information will be fine. A full list of what you’ll need to provide and help on how to answer the questions you’ll be asked is on the US Department of Homeland Security website.
You should be told within seconds if your application has been accepted or rejected. Otherwise, you’ll be asked to check your application status later – sometimes a decision can take up to 72 hours.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN ESTA AND A VISA?
An approved travel authorization is not a visa. It does not meet the legal or regulatory requirements to serve in lieu of a United States visa when a visa is required under United States law. Individuals who possess a valid visa will still be able to travel to the United States on that visa for the purpose for which it was issued. Individuals traveling on valid visas are not required to apply for a travel authorization.
I hope this guide has been useful.