The ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) was devised as part of the Visa Waiver Programme, a scheme which means that citizens of certain countries would no longer require a visa in order to enter the United States. The conditions of the ESTA are that the traveller may not exceed a stay of 90 days, and that the reasons for travel must be related to tourism or business.
The Visa Waiver Programme has made travel to the US considerably easier for UK citizens, vastly reducing the quantity of red tape and processing time; the ESTA is approved and delivered within 24 hours. However, it’s useful to understand exactly what the limitations are in terms of the 90-day validity of the ESTA.
First of all, it’s good to clarify the two time periods associated with the ESTA. The document itself is valid for 2 years from the time of receipt (unless your passport expires in this time), however you may not exceed a stay of over 90 consecutive days during these 2 years. If you want to stay longer, you must apply for the appropriate visa.
For those who are looking to stay in the USA for this length of time, it’s easy to interpret 90 days as about 3 months; this causes some people to book a return flight exactly 3 months after their outbound flight. It’s an easy mistake to make, but if you book your flights between July 4 and October 4, for example, then this exceeds 90 days.
If you make this mistake, the best thing you can do is re-arrange you return flight and comply with the ESTA agreement. Don’t worry, exceeding the 90 days won’t stop you from being able to return home, but it will probably cause complications the next time you try to enter the USA.
For those staying in the USA for a long period of time, some people consider saving on the hassles of getting a visa by acquiring an ESTA and crossing a nearby border every 90 days (Canada or Mexico, for example). This won’t work. Border patrol agents are very aware of misuse of the ESTA, and the 90-day timer is not reset when crossing a neighbouring border. If you want to stay in the USA for more than 90 days, do some research into the type of visa you need and go through the formal procedures.
The 2-year duration of the ESTA means that you can technically return as many times as you like during this time frame, as long as you never exceed the 90-day period. Nevertheless, you have to have a good reason for this, as you will undoubtedly have to explain your reasons to border agents when returning to the USA. Border officials are very aware of people crossing borders just to extend their stays, and will soon catch on if it the ESTA is being used incorrectly. Without a valid reason to return to the USA shortly after having just left, it is quite possibly that you will be refused entry. However, if you have justified reasons for returning frequently (business arrangements, for example), you should have no problems.
Essentially, the ESTA has been designed to reduce complications and facilitate travel for citizens of certain countries. It is a highly efficient and useful measure, and it is understandable that US authorities have to ensure that it is being used correctly. You can request your ESTA online in just a few minutes, and have it authorised and sent to you within 24 hours.
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.