ESTA Visa Application Guide
To travel to the US visa-free, you will need to satisfy a number of eligibility requirements, including being granted ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).
ESTA is not a visa, but instead is the permission granted to a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) national to travel to the US and seek entry at the border.
ESTA is a pre-screening process granted by the US Customs Border and Protection agency through an online application. Any individual planning to travel under the VWP must have secured ESTA before they travel to the USA. With ESTA approval, the holder may visit the USA for a period of up to 90 days for tourism, medical or business purposes on a temporary basis without the need to obtain a visa.
US Visa Waiver Program requirements
To be eligible to apply for entry into the USA under the Visa Waiver Program, you must be a national of one of the Visa Waiver countries and hold a current e-passport (i.e. a passport with an embedded electronic chip) from a Visa Waiver country valid for a minimum of 6 months from the date you plan to depart the USA.
The VWP countries are:>
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
If you are not a VWP national, you are not eligible for visa-free travel under the VWP and you will not be required to apply for ESTA approval.
Under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, the VWP cannot be used by Visa Waiver country nationals who have been present in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after 1 March 2011, although some exceptions can be made for diplomatic or military-related travel in the service of a Visa Waiver Country. Visa Waiver country nationals who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria similarly cannot enter the USA under the VWP.
In addition, except in limited circumstances, individuals who have traveled to, or stayed in, Cuba since January 12, 2021 are not eligible for visa-free travel to the US. This also applies to anyone with Cuban dual nationality.
Your visit to the USA must last no longer than 90 days, and it must be for the purposes of tourism, medical treatment or business only. If your intention is to travel to the USA for a non-permissible activity, such as to take up employment or commence studies, you are not eligible for VWP entry, and must obtain a relevant visa. Similarly, travel to the USA to work as a member of the foreign press is not covered by the VWP.
When travelling to the USA by air or sea, you must use a US approved carrier. If you meet these criteria, you can apply for ESTA approval ahead of travel under the VWP.
Who is eligible to apply for ESTA?
When applying for ESTA, you will be asked a series of questions to determine your eligibility for visa-free travel.
For example, as part of your ESTA application, you will be asked to disclose whether you have a criminal record. By confirming you do have a past or current conviction, your ESTA application will be refused.
If you falsely state that you do not have a past conviction, you risk being refused entry at the border. This will also impact future US immigration applications.
In such cases, you should seek legal advice to understand your visa options and whether an application for a waiver of inadmissibility would be required.
How to apply for ESTA
ESTA is an online application system and, unlike most US visas, does not require an appointment at your local US Embassy or Consulate.
You can apply on the official ESTA website or using the ESTA app.
The ESTA questionnaire is made up of the following sections:
- Applicant Information: Within this section, you must state your name, date of birth, gender, the country where you currently live, email address and telephone number (both of these are optional).
- Passport Information: passport number, passport issuing country, the date your passport was issued and the date your passport will expire.
- Travel Information: the city where you will be boarding to travel to the USA, information on your carrier (air or shipping company), flight number or the name of the vessel you will be travelling on, your address while in the USA (if there will be multiple locations you should use the first location, if you don’t know the complete address you should enter the name of the hotel or location and update later, and if you will be travelling straight through the USA and not staying then use the words ‘In Transit’ with details of your final destination). It isn’t mandatory to include your entire itinerary and all of your destination addresses, but it is recommended to do so.
- Eligibility questions:
- Do you have a communicable disease? In the USA, commonly acknowledged communicable diseases include chancroid, gonorrhoea, granuloma inguinale, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, leprosy, lymphogranuloma venereum, syphilis, and tuberculosis. If you have been cured or are no longer in the infectious stage, you may answer the question ‘no’ but you are required to provide medical proof that you are not contagious. With lesser common illnesses such as a cold, you can answer ‘no’ to this question.
- Do you have a physical or mental disorder? Answer ‘yes’ if you currently have a physical or mental disorder and a related history of behaviour that could cause harm to your property, your safety, or the safety and welfare of others. You should also answer ‘yes’ if you had such a disorder and history and the likelihood is that the behaviour will recur and cause harm.
- Are you a drug abuser or addict? Under US law, drug abusers and drug addicts are not eligible for entry through ESTA.
- You will be asked if you have been arrested or convicted of an offence or crime that led to serious damage to property or serious harm to a person. This question refers to non-drug related crimes.
- You will be asked if you have broken any law in relation to the possession, use or distribution of illegal drugs.
- You will be asked if you are, or have ever been, involved in espionage, sabotage, terrorism or genocide.
- You will be asked if you have ever mispresented yourself or someone else (given false information) or committed fraud for the purpose of obtaining a visa or other form of entry into the USA.
- You will be asked if you are seeking to work in the USA or have previously worked in the USA without permission from the US government. The Visa Waiver Programme is designed for non-immigrant foreign nationals who cannot seek permanent employment in the USA. Those who wish to work and live permanently in the USA must apply for the relevant immigrant visa.
- You will be asked whether you have previously been denied a US visa or other form of entry into the USA, refused entry to the USA, or have had a visa cancelled.
- You will be asked whether, on any previous periods of time spent in the USA, you have stayed longer than the amount of time granted to you by the US government.
- Finally, you will be asked whether you have travelled to, or been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen, on or after 1 March 2011. These countries are seen to carry a security risk by the US authorities. You will also be asked if you have traveled to or stayed in Cuba since January 12, 2021.
It is always advised to be completely open and honest when completing your application to avoid any future allegations of misrepresentation or fraud.
When you apply, you will need:
- a current e-passport from a Visa Waiver country that is valid for at least 6 months after the date you plan to depart the USA
- to pay the application fee
- your contact details
- and, if applicable, up-to-date employment information.
Once you have completed your ESTA application, you will generally be given a decision immediately on whether your application has been successful.
If your ESTA is not approved immediately, it may be due to further information or investigation being required before a decision is made. In this case, the response will usually take up to 72 hours.
Due to the fact that there can be a delay in processing your application, it is recommended that you make your ESTA application no later than 72 hours before your departure.
If your ESTA application is successful, confirmation will be forwarded to you by email. You are now pre-screened and valid to travel under the Visa Waiver Programme.
Although the ESTA system is entirely online and communication is electronic, it is advisable to print out a copy of your confirmation email for when you are travelling, especially if you are unable to access your emails at that time. At the very least, keep a note of your ESTA individual application number with you when you travel to the USA.
ESTA approval does not guarantee entry
It’s important to note that ESTA approval does not guarantee entry into the USA. It is a pre-screening process granting the individual permission to travel to the US, but entry remains subject to the discretion of US border control.
ESTA travellers would be advised to carry documents with them confirming their reason for travel, in the event immigration control have questions.
How much does ESTA cost?
ESTA applications cost $21 each, payable when completing the online form.
How long is ESTA valid for?
Once granted, ESTA is usually valid for up to 2 years. This allows for multiple visits to the USA within that time.
Should your passport expire within those two years and a new passport be issued to you, you will be required to apply for a new ESTA.
Similarly, if your name changes, perhaps due to marriage or divorce, then you will be required to apply for a new ESTA.
A new ESTA application will also be required if you change your gender, your country of citizenship changes or any other details given as part of your ESTA application change.
With each new application, a new fee will be payable.
Travelling with children
For a child to travel under the VWP, they must make an individual ESTA application.
They must also meet all VWP requirements and possess their own e-passport. It is not possible for a child to travel on their parent’s passport under the VWP.
Applying for ESTA without travel plans
If you are from a Visa Waiver country and have no immediate plans to travel to the USA, you may still apply for ESTA. On your application, enter ‘Unknown’ in the relevant section. This information can later be updated once travel plans are finalised.
ESTA is therefore suitable for last-minute and emergency travellers, as long as they meet all the VWP requirements.
Visiting Canada, Mexico or nearby islands from the USA
If you plan to visit Canada, Mexico or any of the nearby islands during your stay in the USA, your ESTA will usually be accepted for you to travel back into the USA as long as it is within your 90-day VWP limit.
ESTA expiring while in the US
If your ESTA comes to an end while you are visiting the USA, you may carry on with your travel as usual. However, if you intend to visit the USA again under the VWP, you will need to renew your ESTA before you try to re-enter the country.
You must in all cases depart the US before the 90-day VWP limit.
A denied ESTA cannot be appealed, but this does not in itself mean you cannot travel to the US. It simply means you cannot travel visa-free under the VWP.
You will instead have to apply for the relevant US visa, based for example on your reason for travel. Business travellers would in most cases apply for the B-1 visa.
Take professional advice on your circumstances and the options open to you to travel to the US.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.