ESTA: Everything You Need To Know About Visiting The US VISA Free

The Statue of Liberty over the Scene of New york USA

America has some of the most stunning sights in the world – from the beautiful boulevards of Hollywood to the bustling hubbub of New York; from the towering Rocky Mountains to the sweeping majesty of the Grand Canyon.

Dreaming of a holiday in the US! Before you go booking your holiday for a time when you can hopefully travel next year, you’ll need to get your Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) form sorted.

Like most countries, the good ol’ US of A operates a visa system. That means you can’t just book a trip to Disneyland on a whim. You need to prepare your travels well in advance, which is where the ESTA form comes into play.

What is the ESTA?

Back in the day, shortly before landing in the States, you’d be given a green form – the I-94W – which you needed to fill in and hand in before landing. This was a visa waiver form, which was tied to agreements America had with other countries. UK travellers, for instance, wouldn’t need to apply for a full visa if they were staying for a limited number of days.

Aerial New York City with airplane wing

The Visa Waiver Program is still in operation today. But rather than filling out forms during transit, you fill in the ESTA form online and ahead of time, which lets you know if you’re eligible for visa-free travel to the States.

Don’t mistake the ESTA USA travel permit for a visa. Instead, think of it as getting pre-approved for your visa (or visa waiver).

Who needs to complete an ESTA travel permit?

Generally, most travellers to the United States should complete an ESTA form. If you’re off on your holidays, visiting family or friends, or attending business meetings, then it’s worth sorting out your Electronic System for Travel Authorisation.

Young business woman on laptop

Additionally, the US Customs and Border Protection site state that:

  • Applicants must be from an eligible Visa Waiver Program country
  • Applicants cannot hold a visitor’s visa
  • Applicants stay for a maximum of 90 days

Only those who are heading to the US to work or go to school won’t need to fill one in. That’s because they require different visas and permits that aren’t covered by ESTA’s system.

If in doubt, apply. You can find out more at the UK’s Government USA travel advice and entry requirements page.

Why do I need to fill one out?

The main benefit of the ESTA is peace of mind. After giving your details, you can see, in advance, whether or not you need to apply for a visa.

Rock up to America without a valid visa, if you’re from a country that’s not covered by the Visa Waiver Program, and you can expect to find yourself sent straight back from where you came. All that money you’ve spent on air travel and hotels wasted.

Travellers waiting at airport

It’s worth noting that the country of origin isn’t the only benchmark. For instance, if you’re a UK subject with a criminal record, this may prevent you from taking advantage of the Visa Waiver Program. You may need to apply for a separate visa. You may even be denied entry entirely. The system, then, removes guesswork (and second-guesswork) from the equation.

So, for a small fee, the ESTA form prevents this from happening. Just make sure you’re completely honest when entering your details.

How do I apply for one and how long does it take?

There are a number of sites that offer ESTA services, including the US’s very own Customs and Border Protection website. Some sites focus solely on ESTA applications, while more experienced companies offer visa and travel permits for lots of different countries.

The form can be quite in-depth, so make sure you set aside some time to go through it all – and always thoroughly check your answers before submission.

Timings vary. You may receive a response within a few minutes of submitting your application, although expect to wait up to 72 hours. You’ll receive approvals digitally, in an email, but it’s recommended that you also print these out, for additional security.

However, there’s no guarantee that your ESTA form will be accepted. Because of this, it’s worth checking that your chosen site will refund your fee if you get rejected. Some do, some don’t – but don’t throw your money away. Approved ESTAs are valid for two years from your application date, and these details are tied to your passport. So, if your passport expires before your ESTA does, you’ll need to apply again with updated details.

Fill out your ESTA as soon as you can – especially if you also need to apply for a visa, which can take time. At least once that’s sorted, you can forget all about the paperwork and focus on planning the rest of your holiday.

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