As you may know already, citizens of some 38 countries can apply for ESTA, which avoids the need for a visa when visiting the USA. The United Kingdom is one of these countries, vastly facilitating travel to the USA for many of its citizens.
The ESTA, Electronic System for Travel Authorisation – falls under the rubric of the Visa Waiver Program, which is what allows certain travellers to visit the United States without a visa, provided they are travelling for business or tourism purposes. However, behind the scenes, airlines also need to apply for the Visa Waiver Programme. The process is very different, but is key to understanding how your ESTA works and what it means for you when booking a flight.
The first important thing to understand is that anybody can book a flight, with or without a visa or an ESTA. The airline will happily charge you and tell you your itinerary, but this does not mean that you are authorised to visit the United States, or even board the plane. It is quite common for travellers to book their flights before sorting out their travel authorisation; for example, an employer may need an employee to attend a last-minute conference in the US. In this case, s/he may book the flight on behalf of the employee, and then instruct the traveller to get an ESTA. This is perfectly okay, however it is often a good idea to arrange your ESTA before booking your flight, just in case it is denied and you have to go through the traditional visa application process.
But back to the point, your airline can issue you a ticket without knowing your travel authorisation status in the USA. However, the airline has an obligation to make sure you are authorised to travel to the USA before issuing you your boarding pass. This means they are responsible for ensuring that you have a valid ESTA or visa before they allow you to board the aircraft. Quite simply, if you do not have travel authorisation, they will not give you a boarding pass.
This obligation is valid for airlines who have chosen to become ‘VWP Signatory Carriers’. Airlines are not obliged to enter this agreement, but those that do not are not authorised to transport passengers travelling from certain countries to the United States. Obviously for this reason, it is in the best interest of airlines to enter this agreement.
For an airline to become a VWP Signatory Carrier, the process is quite simple (as it is for individuals to apply for ESTA). However, doing so means that these carriers, or airlines, need to accept certain obligations, and are subject to fines if they do not meet them. Most importantly, VWP Signatory Carriers are fined if they transport travellers who require ESTA authorisation but do not have one. Specifically, the agreement states that travellers must have ESTA authorisation ‘prior to embarking on a carrier for travel to the United States’.
Furthermore, when operating with the Visa Waiver Programme, the carrier is responsible for ensuring that the passenger travelling with ESTA authorisation eventually leaves the USA. Given the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme, this must be within 90 days of arrival. Due to liability reasons, this can prevent some operators from joining the programme, however this is not common.
Likewise, the carrier agrees to return the passenger to the airport of departure if s/he is refused entry to the United States. To understand this, you need to know that the ESTA is not a ‘determination of admissibility’, but rather just allows the traveller to board an aeroplane going to the United States. Upon arrival, it is then the responsibility of a Customs and Border Patrol Officer to determine whether or not to grant the traveller entry into the United States.
Therefore, the ESTA in itself does not guarantee entry into the United States. When you arrive at a port of entry, the officer will be able to see that you have an approved ESTA, and will likely ask you a couple of questions prior to granting you entry. Generally, this is just to ensure that you have been truthful on your ESTA application, that you are not seeking to work in the USA, that you have a return date or a strong reason to return home, etc. On the surface this may seem a little intimidating, but it is a perfectly normal part of travelling to the USA, and is always in the interest of national security.
So, in this regard, the VWP has a very close link to airlines. One of the conditions is that carriers are obliged to transport passengers back to their point of departure if they have been deemed inadmissible. This is a fairly important obligation for airlines, as they need to do so ‘on the first available means of transportation to the alien’s point of departure to the United States’. For example, if you go from Heathrow to JFK under the Visa Waiver Programme, and are refused admission into the US by a Border Patrol Officer, your airline will need to put you back on their next flight from JFK to Heathrow, at their own expense.
This is also true if the ESTA holder overstays the 90-day admission period of the Visa Waiver Programme. If the US authorities detect that an ESTA holder is no longer entitled to be in the USA, the airline that carried you into the country needs to put you on the next flight back to your point of departure. In other words, the airline is entirely responsible for transporting the holder home, at no expense to the United States.
As we have established, you need to have ESTA authorisation before boarding a plane to the United States (or a visa, if relevant). To make everything as smooth as possible, it can be useful to print out your ESTA approval email once you get it. In fact, some airlines ask you to do this, so check with them if you have any doubts. Nevertheless, airlines should be able to see that you have been ESTA approved when they scan your passport, as the two things are digitally connected.
If for any reason you do not have ESTA authorisation when you go to the airport, your airline will not allow you to board the aircraft. However, given that the ESTA application process takes place entirely online and is generally very quick, you may still have the opportunity to fill out an online application. In this case, there are no guarantees that you will be approved in time for your flight, but in some cases the authorisation may come through in time.
If you have a one-way ticket to the United States, your airline may also insist that you purchase a return flight, or provide proof of onward travel. This is because, as we discussed earlier, they are also responsible for ensuring that you do not overstay the 90-day admission period of the ESTA, and may feel the need to cover their backs to make sure there is no chance of this happening.
In most cases, when you are travelling to the USA you will be going on a commercial airline. In this case, they will almost certainly be approved as VWP Signatory Carriers. If you have any doubts, you can always check on the airline website.
However, the situation can be different when you are travelling by private jet. Essentially the rules are the same, however the aircraft must belong to a US corporation, or a non-US based operator who has a subsidiary in the USA. Otherwise, the aircraft will only be able to operate commercially. If the aircraft does meet these requirements, then the operator can apply to become a VWP Signatory Carrier just like any commercial airline, with the same conditions and requirements in place.
If you are travelling to the USA in a private plane, you can check with the operator whether or not you can travel with ESTA under the Visa Waiver Programme. The Signatory Carrier agreement is renewed every seven years, so private operators who seldom travel to the USA will need to take this into consideration.
As we mentioned at the beginning, anything to do with being a VWP Signatory Carrier basically goes on behind the scenes, but it should reinforce how important it is to apply for your ESTA online in advance, and certainly before arriving at the airport. Remember, all you need to apply for ESTA online is a valid passport and a payment method. Once approved, your ESTA will allow you to travel to the United States, on business or as a tourist, for periods of up to 90 days at a time. Your ESTA will expire after two years, or whenever your passport expires (whichever comes first).
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.