The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) application process is carried out entirely online, and only takes around 10 to 15 minutes. The only thing you need to have to hand is your passport and a method of payment. You can check out our other blog articles
and our ESTA guide
for more information on how to fill out the form, but here we’re going to look at what happens next.
Once you have submitted your ESTA application, you will receive your authorisation status within 24 hours, and generally much quicker (within an hour). This is sent to the email address provided when you submitted your application online.
The ESTA approval rate is very high (over 97%), however occasionally applicants receive different responses to their applications. In this article we’ll go over the possible ESTA application responses, and what you need to do after submitting your application.
An important thing to bear in mind is that the ESTA is an automated system. It stands for the ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorisation’, which is the reason for which it can process applications so quickly. The process is designed to screen potential visitors to the USA who come from ‘high-value, low-risk’ countries, which together comprise the 38 participating countries of the Visa Waiver Programme – the United Kingdom was the first country to form part of this programme. Because of certain factors, such as low visa refusal rates, citizens of these countries are not required to go through the traditional visa application process when the purpose of the US visit is tourism or business.
There are three possible responses to an ESTA application: Authorisation Approved, Travel Not Authorized and Authorization Pending.
As we mentioned, the most likely response is ‘Authorisation Approved’. If you receive an email saying that your authorisation has been approved, you are immediately entitled to travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme.
It’s important to understand what this approval means. Whilst it does mean that you are entitled to travel to the USA, it does not necessarily grant you entry into the country. The ESTA gives you permission to travel to a port of entry (the airport, for example), where you will then need to go through customs. The final decision regarding your entry into the country comes down to the Customs and Border Protection Officer you meet there. This officer will ask you a range of questions regarding your visit; this can take five seconds or five minutes. Some passengers can be a little intimidated by this questioning, but it is perfectly normal, and provided your ESTA application was truthful, there’s no cause for concern. Typical questions include ‘have you been to the USA before?’, ‘how long are you staying for?’, or ‘are you in work back home?’. Essentially, a lot of the time this questioning is just to ensure that you are not attempting to stay in the USA for work, which would not be allowed under the Visa Waiver Programme.
The second potential response to your ESTA application is ‘Travel Not Authorised’. Obviously, this is not what you want to see. If your email indicates that you have not been authorised to travel to the USA, this simply means that you cannot travel to the country with ESTA, under the Visa Waiver Programme. It is not saying that you are not allowed to go to the country, but rather that you need to find alternate travel authorisation to do so. In this case, you will need to apply for a US visa (tourist visa, business visa, etc.). In order to apply for a US visa, you need to get in touch with your nearest US embassy or consulate. In the UK, there is a US embassy in London, US consulate generals in Edinburgh and Belfast, and a US virtual consulate in Cardiff. You will need to book an appointment at one of these locations in order to be interviewed for your visa.
We have an in-house team of ESTA experts who strive to ensure that all applications are correctly filled in and complete before the order is processed, which further contributes to this very low refusal rating. The only reason for an ESTA refusal is that your profile does not fit in with the terms and conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme. Under no circumstances should you lie on an ESTA application in order to be approved; doing so would very likely be picked up upon arrival by a Customs and Border Protection Officer.
The final potential response to an ESTA application is ‘Authorisation Pending’. This only occurs in rare cases, however it’s no reason to be alarmed. We will monitor this response until an outcome is reported. This response just means that your application needs to be reviewed because the automatic system is unable to determine an immediate outcome. In most cases an ‘Authorisation Pending’ will turn into an ‘Authorisation Approved’ relatively quickly. We will notify you of the final outcome immediately.
Why might an ESTA application be denied?
The Department of Homeland Security conceived the Visa Waiver Programme as a way to facilitate the travel authorisation process for citizens of certain countries. It has been thoroughly developed and modified over the years to make sure that the only people who are refused are those who do not adhere to the terms and conditions of the programme, or those who could potentially pose a law enforcement or security risk.
It is not possible to find out the exact reason for which an ESTA is denied, and US embassies and consulates can be of no further help in the matter. You should only resort to an embassy or consulate if you want to carry out a visa application. However, in our experience, we have found that there are several common motives for an ESTA being denied:
- The applicant has previously travelled to the USA and outstayed the 90-day length of stay of the ESTA, or the permitted length of stay granted by a visa.
- The applicant previously travelled with ESTA under the Visa Waiver Programme, but took part in unauthorised work during this time.
- The applicant has previously been denied entry to the USA upon arrival.
- The applicant answered one or more questions on the ESTA application form incorrectly.
- The applicant filled out the ESTA form using passport details of a passport that had previously been reported lost or stolen (even if the passport was later found).
I need to travel urgently, but my ESTA was denied. What should I do?
We strongly advise all UK citizens planning to travel to the USA with ESTA to apply for their ESTAs online well in advance of travel. This is because, if your ESTA is refused, you will still have time to follow the traditional visa application process. Sadly, there are no guarantees as to whether you can get a next-day visa appointment given the high demand, though you can always check. Even though there is a very slim chance of not getting your ESTA authorised, it’s always the safe option to apply for your ESTA as soon as you know you will be travelling.
What happens if I am refused entry at a US port of entry?
In the highly unlikely event that you are refused entry in the USA, despite having a valid ESTA, you will likely be sent back to your departure country, or, alternatively, on to your next non-US destination if you are not returning to the same place.
The whole purpose behind the ESTA is to make it possible to travel to the USA with less red tape, less effort and less expense. The USA and the UK mutually want to encourage visitors between the two countries, and a reciprocal scheme is set up in the UK to achieve the same thing. Nevertheless, security is always the priority, and the process naturally reflects this.
Make sure that you qualify for ESTA well in advance so that you can prepare for all outcomes, and be sure to submit your ESTA application as soon as you know you will be travelling to the country. This way, even in the unlikely event of your ESTA not being authorised, you will still have time to apply for a US visa and carry out your trip.
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.