ESTA and visas for visiting the USA

Getting into the USA has rarely been straightforward and involves some forward planning. However, it’s a lot easier if you qualify for an ESTA rather than needing a visa. Here’s a guide to help you understand the differences between an ESTA and a visa, whether you qualify for one over the other, and the application process for the ESTA.

What is an ESTA

ESTA is an abbreviation that stands for “Electronic System for Travel Authorisation”. Introduced in the United States in 2001, the ESTA was a security measure established by the Department of Homeland Security in response to the 2001 terrorist attack on September 11. 

Before the ESTA, travellers to the USA were given a paper form called the 1-94W while on the plane, to be filled out during travel then handed in upon arrival. However, with the ESTA, Customs and Border Protection can see in advance who is entering the USA and can, in theory, filter out those who may be travelling with ulterior motives.

As well as being a much safer travel measure, the ESTA is actually much easier to apply for than an actual visa. Because you fill out your information online in advance, it eliminates the need to travel to an embassy or consulate. If travelling as a group, this is especially handy because there is no need to bring every single traveller to an embassy.

Requirements for the ESTA 

Of course, before applying, it is wise to make sure that you, and anyone that may be travelling with you, meets the requirements. In most cases, the requirements are easily met and this is not a problem. 

Travellers must abide by the Covid-19 rules in the United States. Take into consideration the rules of the US government, the airline rules, as well as the current UK guidelines. Also, remember that each state has different rules regarding Covid-19.

Travellers must possess a passport that is valid during the entirety of their stay in the USA

The 90-day maximum stay begins on the date that you arrive in the USA. Bear in mind that these 90 days also include side visits to bordering countries or Caribbean Islands. For example, if you travel to Mexico for a week during your stay, these 7 days are included within the 90-day stay, the limit does not start over upon return to the United States.

You must have a return or transit ticket on arrival.

If you travel into the United States with an ESTA, you cannot apply for a visa, extension, or residence permit while within the country.

If travelling by private plane or ship, you must have a visa. Entering the USA this way is not allowed with an ESTA.

You can only apply for an ESTA with an emergency passport if the passport contains a digital chip.

Personal checklist

The next set of requirements involve the traveller’s background. You won’t qualify for an ESTA if any of these apply to you? 

You have not not adhered to the requirements for the USA ESTA or visa in the past.

You have at any point broken laws regarding possession, distribution, or use of drugs.

You have been arrested or convicted of a crime that led to serious injury. This is only for serious crimes, fines or traffic violations and other types of misdemeanours do not count in these scenarios unless they resulted in a serious injury

You have been to Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Libya or Yemen, or were a national of any of these countries at one point.  

You have a contagious disease or mental defect that would make you a serious risk to their environment.

Travellers that do not meet the requirements of the ESTA must apply for a visa

Although the list of requirements mentioned above seems intimidating, most travellers still qualify for the USA ESTA. However, if you feel that something on the above-mentioned list will stop you from obtaining your ESTA, you are encouraged to apply for a USA visa.  

These are situations where you are required to apply for a visa:

You want to stay in the USA for longer than 90 days.

As of 2011, you have visited Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia.

You are a national or dual citizen of the countries mentioned above.

You are travelling by private plane, boat or other transportation which is not part of the ESTA system.

You can’t answer all the safety questions on the ESTA form with “no”.

Because the visa application process takes a bit longer than the ESTA, remember to give yourself enough time to apply for your visa before your holiday.

ESTA application procedure

Submitting an ESTA application is easily done online. Once you have completed the application form and paid the fee, your application will be processed. If your ESTA application is approved, you will receive a confirmation by email. The approval of the ESTA usually occurs within 72 hours. If you require the ESTA sooner, there is an option to pay for urgent delivery, which will shorten the time frame to approximately one hour on average. 

If you are travelling with your family or group, you can make the application process even easier by choosing the group application option. This saves time because much of the information you are asked to provide only has to be done once, instead of for each traveller. This also makes payment easier because only one payment has to be made, instead of paying per individual. 

When filling out the ESTA form, there are four different types of questions that will be asked. The first portion is the contact information of the applicant. The second part regards details about your trip. You will be asked about a point of contact in the United States, initial lodgings in the USA, and an emergency contact back home. The third portion is information about each traveller, such as their passport info and employer info (if they are employed). The final portion regards safety and background questions. 

The validity period of the ESTA is two years from the date of granting. Within this validity period, you can make as many trips to the United States as you’d like, as long as each trip lasts no more than 90 days.

Please note that the ESTA is linked to your passport information. If your passport expires before the two-year validity period, then the ESTA will expire along with the visa. You will then have to apply for a new one should you want to travel to the USA once more.

Last updated: 3 January 2022

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Travel restrictions have been lifted by the UK, but some other countries still have measures in place. Check the latest government travel advice.