Your passport and your ESTA – an inseparable couple

As a British citizen you are eligible to apply for ESTA online, which is the quickest and easiest method for getting into the United States as a tourist or on business. ESTA is an automatic, electronic form of travel authorisation, which waives the need for a visa.

This system has been in place for many years now, and is at a point where there are 38 participating countries. Having slowly changed and developed over time, the ESTA visa waiver is now smoother than ever, and essentially runs like clockwork. Nevertheless, there are a few basic things that you should bear in mind when applying for and travelling with ESTA. Here, we’re going to cover the most important things to know about the relationship between your passport and your ESTA…

Your passport

Your passport is the key to your ESTA. The information that you include in your ESTA application must reflect the information on your passport word for word and letter for letter. So, with this in mind, when it comes to filling out the online ESTA form, it’s always a good idea to take a few things into consideration…
Make sure your name is exactly as it appears on your passport. It’s a good idea to follow the same advice when purchasing your flight as well. Of course, this is relevant when it comes to small spelling mistakes, but this is even more relevant for people who have changed their name. The most common example of this is if you get married and take your partner’s surname. Given that British passports generally last for ten years, it’s perfectly normal for your passport to carry your maiden name, despite the fact that you officially go by your married name. In this case, your passport takes priority! If your passport still has your maiden name on it, then you must use this name on your ESTA form (and, for the sake of ease and clarity, for your flights too). Your title is not as important, and this does not appear on your passport in any case.
Your passport number must also be copied out accurately – take the time to double and triple check this, as, like we mentioned, your passport is the key to your ESTA! You also need to take extra care to make sure the dates associated with your passport are also copied out correctly. Avoiding any errors here will save any unnecessary worries or amendments at a later stage.
You must have a biometric passport in order to travel with ESTA. All passports issued in the UK are biometric, and have been for around ten years now. Nevertheless, there are still some British passports floating around that are not biometric, and so if this applies to you, you must renew it before you apply for ESTA. It’s important to renew your passport before you apply for ESTA because, as you’ll recall, your passport is the key to your ESTA, and thus your ESTA is heavily dependent on your passport. If you renew your passport, the details will be different, and so the ESTA you had will now be 100% void. Do bear in mind that you can apply for ESTA even if you don’t have a biometric passport and still be approved, but you will not be able to use this ESTA with this passport (or any other) to travel to the USA.
To find out whether your passport is biometric or not, check the ID page with your photo on for a digital chip. This chip contains information about you, and is an extra layer of security for you and for border patrol agencies. There will also be a machine-readable zone on this page, which is made up of two lines of letters, numbers, and chevrons (< >).
Finally, and it may sound obvious, make sure your passport is valid during the dates of your trip! As soon as your passport expires, your ESTA expires too, even if it’s within two years of your approval (we’ll discuss this in more detail shortly). For this reason, and in the interest of getting as much time out of your ESTA as possible, it’s a good idea to make sure your passport has at least two years left on it, but this isn’t a requirement. Simply, for your own convenience and to make sure you’re not wasting your time, just make sure your passport will still be valid during the dates you intend to travel. Whilst you may think it would be the first thing you’d check, many, many travellers have made this mistake and only discovered their error at the airport (including the author of this very advice!).
You may have heard of the ‘six-month rule’ at some point or another, whereby travellers need to ensure their passports are valid for at least six months beyond the period of their stay. This is relevant for citizens of certain countries, but it’s not a factor for Brits travelling to the USA with ESTA. So, as long as your passport is valid during the entire duration of your trip, you have nothing to worry about.

ESTA validity

There are a few time periods associated with ESTA that are important to establish, and they’re also intertwined with your passport too.
First things first, your ESTA will be valid for two years from the day you are approved. Your ESTA authorisation will clearly state this expiry date, which is the date from which you will no longer be able to travel to the USA with this ESTA. The main exception to this two-year period is if your passport expires during this time, as we touched on earlier. If your passport expires within the two years following the date on which you receive ESTA approval, then this date will match that of your passport (and will also be clearly stated on the documentation).
The second key time frame to be aware of is the 90-day ESTA limit. This means that on any trip you take to the USA using your ESTA, you must not exceed 90 days in the country. Once in the USA on an ESTA, there is no way to extend your trip beyond these 90 days, and doing so will jeopardise any future trips you make to the USA. If you intend to go to the USA to find work or a place to live, you cannot travel with the ESTA, and instead must apply for the corresponding visa.
One thing that many people are not aware of is that your ESTA only needs to be valid on the date of entry into the USA. If your ESTA expires during your trip, you are still travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme and the same conditions still apply, but it is perfectly acceptable and legal, and you won’t have any problems whatsoever in leaving the country or coming back on a new ESTA (as long as you don’t exceed the 90 days).
Another clarification to make here is that this 90-day limit is valid for each trip made to the USA with your ESTA during its two-year validity period. That’s to say, it does not mean that you can only be in the USA for a total of 90 days during the full two years. Instead, think of it as a timer that resets every time you come back to the UK.
The final time period that’s associated to your ESTA is the amount of time it takes to receive your approval status. This is a maximum of 24 hours, and so it makes ESTA an extremely quick method for getting travel authorisation for the USA. Nevertheless, it’s still a very good idea to apply for your ESTA a good few weeks before travelling, as, even though you’ll know your approval status within one day, there is still a slim chance that you won’t be approved. If this is the case, then you’ll need to make arrangements to get a visa for your trip. Visas take time, and so it’s certainly not something you want to be scrambling around for just a few days before you intend to travel.
And so, as you can plainly see, your passport and your ESTA authorisation are a close-knit pair. They depend on one another when travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme, and so it is worth taking extra special care when making sure all the details are correct and everything is valid for your trip. That said, it still doesn’t change what we said right at the top of this article: ESTA is the quickest and simplest way to travel to the USA as a British tourist (or on business), and the system essentially runs like clockwork. 

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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