This article aims to provide a general overview of ESTA, so as to help British travellers understand it properly and have peace of mind when travelling to the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme. We will cover the ordering process, highlighting the key time frames to be aware of once you’re ESTA has been approved. We’ll look at what advantages the ESTA has over a US visa, and also what you can expect once you land in the USA.
The ESTA came into force in 2008, serving as a time and cost-efficient alternative to the traditional US visa, designed specifically for citizens of a select group of countries that form part of the ‘Visa Waiver Programme’. The UK was the first country to appear on this ever-expanding list.
The main and perhaps most appealing difference between a visa and the ESTA is that, instead of following the traditional, lengthy process of applying for a visa in person through a US embassy or consulate, applicants can simply complete the whole process online. We’ll take a look at ESTA vs. Visa differences in more depth later on in this article, but first let’s cover the online ESTA application process.
Each passenger who will be travelling to the United States must have his or her own ESTA authorisation, and this includes young children and babies. Nevertheless, thanks to the self-explanatory nature of the online application form itself, as well as the little time required to complete it, it does not require much time to complete multiple orders. To start off, you’ll need your passport, an email address and a debit or credit card. It is very important that your passport is valid at the time of completing your order, and that it has at least 6 months left on it from when you plan to be in the USA. Nevertheless, it’s also important to bear in mind that, as soon as your passport expires, your ESTA will also expire, and you would therefore have to apply for a new one.
The online form asks you to provide basic personal details such as your names, date of birth, address, etc. It also asks you to provide emergency contact information, and some very basic employment details. There is a short set of security questions that you will also have to answer, which are there for the benefit of US security. Though these questions may seem a little specific or even a little strange, you must answer them, and the procedure is not time consuming (they are simply yes/no questions).
Finally, you are also asked to provide the address where you will be staying once you’re in the USA. Of course, you may not have this information yet when ordering your ESTA online, in which case you can simply put ‘unknown’ for now, and update this information at a later stage.
Once you’ve given all of this information, you should give it all another read over before confirming your order. Check for any typos or mistakes or missing information; before processing ESTA applications, we review all of them to spot these things, but it’s always a good idea for you to do the same. After processing your payment, you will be alerted as to the status of your ESTA within 24 hours via email. Once it has been approved, you are free to travel to the USA as a tourist or for business purposes (among other things), for a duration of 90 days or less.
The ESTA itself is valid for 2 years from the date of its approval, during which time you may travel to the USA as many times as you like, provided that:
This covers the basic order process of the ESTA, which takes around ten minutes all in all, and allows you to have your travel authorisation within 24 hours from the time you order it. Now you have this in mind, it’s worth looking at how the ESTA compares with the traditional US visa.
Remember: The ESTA is not a visa, but rather a method of travel authorisation so that travellers can visit the USA without one.
Both ESTAs and visas provide permission for non-US citizens to travel to the USA. The main restriction here is that the ESTA is only valid for citizens of countries that form part of the Visa Waiver Programme. This currently includes 38 countries, which are listed here. As we mentioned, the UK was the first country to be approved as a Visa Waiver Programme member country, under the condition that British citizens have the ‘unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man’.
With the limited travel period of 90 days, ESTA is designed for travellers who would like to see the country as tourists, or who have business arrangements to carry out in the USA. An ESTA can also be obtained for medical treatments or transit through the USA. This is different to the purposes of a visa, as with a visa it is possible to stay in the country for more prolonged periods of time. Visas allow visitors to live and work in the country, and even apply for residence.
As well as the above, the order process for a visa is very different to that of the ESTA. Travellers can apply for ESTA online in a matter of minutes, whereas those requesting a visa will need to follow a lengthier process, requiring between two and four weeks at a minimum. The ESTA is delivered to you electronically within 24 hours, whereas a visa requires physical interviews in your nearest US embassy or consulate.
You will need to apply for the corresponding US visa if you want to:
If none of these activities correspond with your travel needs, the ESTA is most likely the best option for you. It entails minimal requirements on your part and is particularly easy to obtain, and, best of all, you’ll have it within 24 hours of applying, following the process mentioned previously.
To apply for a visa, arrange an appointment with your nearest US embassy or consulate; you will be invited for an interview and the visa will be processed within a few weeks.
Now, regardless of whether you’re travelling with ESTA or a visa, it’s helpful to know what to expect when you arrive in the USA.
Security measures in the USA have become more and more rigorous over time, and now, similar to airports around the world, border patrol agents and guards at USA airports take every precaution to ensure maximum safety for passengers, and for the country itself.
As you may well be accustomed to, you will have to comply with international regulations with respect to your luggage. There are certain items that cannot be carried in the hold, items that cannot be carried in your hand luggage, and certain size and weight restrictions for your bags. If you are carrying liquids or gels in your hand luggage, they must be in containers of no more than 100ml, all of which must be placed in a transparent, sealable bag (which you can always buy at the airport, and sometimes they are even provided free of charge). If you fail to meet this requirement, these items will be confiscated before you board the flight.
When you eventually land in the USA, the final decision as to whether to allow you entry into the country is down to the border patrol agents. An ESTA grants you administrative access into the country without a visa, but it is down to the agents to make sure that your reasons for travel are legitimate. This process can be slightly daunting, but it is a perfectly normal process and it is in place for everybody’s best interests.
You should be prepared to explain why you are visiting the country, which, more often than not will be related to tourism, business or medical arrangements. You may need to give detailed explanations, such as your specific travel plans or line of work. As long as your approved ESTA application was honest, and you have not breached the ESTA conditions in the past, there is nothing to worry about; border agents are inquisitive because they have to be, so don’t take it personally and try to help them out in their task.
You may also need to discuss what you do for a living. These kinds of questions are there to make sure you are not looking for work in the USA, and to confirm that you have enough money to carry out your trip. You may also need to provide addresses and contact details in the USA, so make sure you have these details to hand.
ESTA makes US travel easy, and, if you follow the indications in this article, you’re sure to have a smooth and worry-free travel experience.
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.