How to apply for ESTA America authorization

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) is a mandatory requirement for individuals travelling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

ESTA is not a visa, nor does it give permission to enter the US.

ESTA, however, is an automated system administered by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection for screening passengers before they begin their travel to the US. Fundamentally, it’s a security requirement determining eligibility for travel under the VWP.

US Customs and Border Protection officers exercise discretion as to an individual’s admissibility to the US upon arrival into the country.

Are you eligible for ESTA authorization? 

To determine if you will be eligible for ESTA, the following requirements must apply:

  • You are a national of a participating VWP country (such as the UK).
  • You are travelling to the US by air or sea for temporary business or pleasure you are travelling through the US to another destination country (transit).
  • Your trip is 90 days or less.
  • You do not hold another US visa (visitor visa).
  • You hold a valid e-passport from a participating VWP country.

Any non-US national travelling to the US for no more than 90 must have ESTA approval – even if only ‘passing through’ (in transit). This also applies to minors.

Travel authorization under ESTA is only required where you are planning to travel the US via air or sea under the Visa Waiver Program. The main exemptions are for travel to the US by land from Mexico or Canada.

If you have a valid visa to travel to the US, you will not need to apply for ESTA. The initial security checks will have been carried out as part of your visa application.

How to apply for ESTA

ESTA applications can be only be made online. You can apply individually or on a group basis.

The ESTA application collects biographic information and answers to VWP eligibility questions. You’ll be asked to provide details about yourself, including your contact details and passport number, your travel itinerary and accommodation while in the US.

You will also be required to answer the following nine eligibility questions:

  1. Do you have a physical or mental disorder; or are you a drug abuser or addict; or do you currently have any of the following diseases (communicable diseases are specified pursuant to section 361(b) of the Public Health Service Act): Cholera, Diphtheria, Tuberculosis infectious, Plague, Smallpox, Yellow Fever, Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers, including Ebola, Lassa, Marburg, Crimean-Congo, Severe acute respiratory illnesses capable of transmission to other persons and likely to cause mortality.
  2. Have you ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority?
  3. Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs?
  4. Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?
  5. Have you ever committed fraud or misrepresented yourself or others to obtain, or assist others to obtain, a visa or entry into the United States?
  6. Are you currently seeking employment in the United States or were you previously employed in the United States without prior permission from the U.S. government?
  7. Have you ever been denied a U.S. visa you applied for with your current or previous passport, or have you ever been refused admission to the United States or withdrawn your application for admission at a U.S. port of entry?
  8. Have you ever stayed in the United States longer than the admission period granted to you by the U.S. government?
  9. Have you travelled to, or been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011?

It perhaps goes without saying that full disclosure is required when answering the questions. You are committing a criminal offense under US law if you fail to answer truthfully and comprehensively, which will impact your future US immigration applications.

How long does an ESTA decision take?

Decisions are usually fairly instant, although delays can occur during busy periods so you’re advised to apply well in advance of travel, at least 72 hours before your date of departure.

If your ESTA application is successful, you’ll be issued a confirmation number. Keep a safe record of this, including a copy to accompany your passport when you travel.

ESTA approval remains valid for multiple visits to the US. It’s recommended (albeit not mandatory) that you update the information about your US travel and accommodation arrangements for each trip to avoid delays on arrival. This should help to avoid delays at border control due to additional questions or information requests.

How much is ESTA?

The ESTA America application is no longer free of charge. You’ll be required to pay $14 for each applicant – a $4 processing fee and $10 authorization fee.

Note that it’s only the latter that will be refunded in the event of a refused application.

What happens if my ESTA application is refused?

There are many reasons why your travel authorization application may be refused. For example, due to your nationality or if you have a criminal conviction.

If you’ve received a Travel Not Authorized response, take advice on your specific situation as a refused ESTA does not in itself mean you will not be able to gain valid entry to the US.

Depending on your circumstances and the reason for refusal, there may be alternative visa or entry options that you could pursue beyond the VWP.

It may be that you make an application for a waiver of inadmissibility. This can be a complex area, requiring full disclosure to USCIS. Again, it’s advisable to seek guidance from an immigration attorney on your options.

How long is ESTA valid for?

ESTA America lasts two years from the date of issue unless your passport expires or permission is revoked before the two-year point. In which case, travel authorization will be lost.

During the two-year ESTA period, you’ll need to reapply if you have a:

  • Change of name
  • Change of gender
  • Change of country of citizenship
  • Change in response to ESTA application questions

Your ESTA has to be valid when you enter the US although it should not be a problem if it expires while you are in the US. You would however need to reapply for authorization before your next trip to the US under the VWP.

Do you have a query about ESTA? Book a fixed fee telephone consultation with a US immigration attorney >>

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.

Last updated: 13 December 2019