If you are travelling to the United States and you’re a citizen of a country included in the Visa Waiver Programme, you still need to complete the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) form before you travel.
Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands are also included in the scheme, so make sure you have the right paperwork before you travel. If in doubt, seek expert advice.
Other countries, including Australia, have a similar programme in place, so while US immigration is notoriously tough, it is by no means the first to adopt an electronic entry application process.
Essentially it is a pre-authorisation check for those wishing to travel to the US, which allows the US security services and immigration to make relevant checks and to ensure you are eligible for entry into the US on a temporary 90-day visa. You are advised to complete the ESTA form 72 hours before you travel.
This is not technically a requirement and most ESTA applications are completed in less than a minute, so it is possible to do one at the last moment before checking in, but it is better to complete the paperwork well in advance of travel. If your ESTA application is likely to hit a snag, you should complete the form before you even buy your ticket.
You can even apply for the ESTA without having specific plans to travel; although you are asked questions about your destination on your form, you can include general details, like the area, and update later when you have finalised your plans. This allows people who are unsure about their status and ability to gain approval to run through the procedure before committing to travel to the US.
Prior to 2007, a simple landing card was all that was required for members of the 38 countries that participated in the Visa Waiver Programme that allows for a 90-day visit for tourism and business purposes. The infamous events of 9/11 changed everything, however, and the ESTA visa was introduced among a raft of changes to tighten up immigration security in the US and provide another layer of checks for the US Border and Customs Protection. In 2008 the system was introduced on a voluntary basis and it became mandatory in 2009.
The form is not required for those travelling by land or sea from Mexico or Canada, but must be completed by anybody travelling by air or sea from other destinations and the travel operators are required to demand them from passengers at check-in.
Even passengers that are in transit and will take an immediate flight out of the US must register for the ESTA scheme, or a full US visa if they are not included in the Visa Waiver Programme.
The countries that are included are:
Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Everybody except for citizens of the US, Canada, Bermuda and several other small nations that fall under the United States’ umbrella. Even a baby needs an ESTA form and families have found their trips ruined thanks to this oversight. If you are unsure of any part of the ESTA or visa application process, it can be useful to seek outside advice.
The ESTA form is not a visa application in itself, but the information you provide allows the US to collect biographic information and answers to a variety of questions that were formerly on the landing card relating to criminal convictions and other matters.
Essentially the ESTA form is merely clearance for the carrier to allow the passenger to board a flight or boat bound for the US. An approved ESTA is no guarantee of admittance to the US and by its very nature it is an application that allows for additional checks before determining an individual’s suitability for acceptance on to American soil.
An approved ESTA is valid for two years, although there are certain conditions. If an applicant replaces their passport then they must apply for a new ESTA to go along with the new document. If you change your name then you must also make sure there is a new ESTA in place and the same goes for any changes of citizenship or gender. You must also, in theory, re-apply if you receive any significant criminal conviction or your circumstances with regards to the questions on your original ESTA form change in any way.
As an American travel document, the ESTA USA is basically governed by the US and the scheme is run by US Border and Customs Protection and the Department of Homeland Security. The specific act that led to ESTA coming into being was the ‘Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007’, with section 217 covering its inception and section 711 amending its details.
That piece of legislation called upon the Department of Homeland Security to bring in a system that allowed the US to make checks on individuals before they arrived on American soil to help them locate potential threats to national security well in advance.
With so many people arriving in the US on a daily basis, it was simply implausible to check everybody as they arrived, so ESTA gives a better chance of weeding out potential lawbreakers and even terrorist threats in advance with the help of a complex network of shared information between law enforcement agencies around the world.
The alternative was to bring an end to visa-free travel, which the US government felt was too strong a step to take and would put immense pressure on the visa application system in any case. ESTA is a halfway house that allows the US to make reasonable checks without going to the extent of closing the borders and requiring everybody to apply for a full visa, which entails trips to the embassy for an interview.
There are three potential responses once your ESTA form is processed:
1. Authorisation approved – your application has been approved and you are free to board a plane or boat to the United States.
2. Authorisation pending – your application has not been immediately approved and you must wait for checks to be carried out or for a final verdict.
3. Travel not authorised – you have been denied a straightforward route to the US and you must now apply for a visa to travel to the US, which can be a time consuming and costlier process.
With so much riding on the ESTA form, potentially even a family’s holiday or a business trip, it can be helpful to get outside advice and go through a third party to ensure that all the paperwork is correct. A rejection can be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to overturn, so it pays to get it right first time.