ESTA Timeline: Application, Duration and Validity


Understanding the timeline of procedures for ESTA to ensure seamless travel to the U.S.

Last month, hundreds of UK travellers were unable to fly to the USA due to a problem with the ESTA application system. As you would expect, this resulted in significant outrage and many disappointed holidaymakers, so here we will look at how this can be avoided so that you never find yourself in the same situation.

What happened?

Periodically, changes need to be made to the ESTA system to keep it working optimally. In this case, an update was being implemented to allow Polish citizens to apply for ESTA, given their recent approval as a Visa Waiver Programme member state. This resulted in technical issues initially, meaning that ESTA applicants were unable to receive their authorisations instantly (generally speaking, ESTA approvals are virtually instant and applicants receive their authorisations within minutes of submitting their applications). 

In this instance, those who were due to fly out imminently and had not already received their ESTA were unable to board their flights. This is because airlines cannot allow passengers to board a US-bound flight unless they have valid travel authorisation, whether that is an ESTA or a visa. Those who already had ESTAs had no problem boarding their flights.

The lesson here is to plan ahead and apply for ESTA as soon as you know you are travelling. Of course, there can be very last-minute decisions to visit the USA, and in these cases it would have been unavoidable, but the US embassy has always recommended applying for ESTA at least 72 hours before travel. Really, to be on the safe side, it is better to apply a couple of months before your trip is due to start.

Preferably, your ESTA application should be completed before you book flights, accommodation and activities. Not only would this avoid unfortunate issues such as the one experienced last month, but also because there is a small chance that your application will be denied. If your online ESTA application is unsuccessful, you will need to apply for the relevant US visa in order to travel there. These visa applications can take weeks and involve in-person interviews in a US embassy or consulate.


The lengthy process involved with a visa application only becomes more stressful when there is an imminent travel deadline.
It is far better to find out that your ESTA application has been denied if you still have a couple of months to arrange your papers.

It is worth understanding the other time periods associated with the ESTA, and what to do once your ESTA has expired. First of all, your ESTA becomes valid as soon as you receive your authorisation confirmation by email. The authorisation itself lasts for two years from this moment, or until your passport expires – whichever comes first. This means that, of course, by applying for your ESTA a couple of months before you travel, you will not be benefiting from the full length of its validity, however this is certainly a price worth paying. The ESTA is an affordable and convenient way to travel to the United States, and you can get plenty of trips in with just one application.

Aside from the two-year validity of the ESTA authorisation itself, each trip taken can only be up to a maximum of 90 days. This is very important, because overstaying this 90-day limit breaches the terms of the Visa Waiver Programme, and you would be unlikely to be let back into the United States with ESTA. It is worth clarifying, however, that this 90-day limit does not cover the entire length of your ESTA’s validity, but rather each individual trip. 

Nearing the end of your ESTA’s validity, you will receive an email informing you that your authorisation is due to expire soon. This is important to know so that you can plan accordingly for any upcoming trips. There is no way to renew your ESTA, but you can apply for a new one just as easily as you did the first time round.

It is very important to note that you need to apply for a new ESTA if you change your passport

As we mentioned earlier, your ESTA actually expires as soon as your passport does, and this will be noted on your ESTA authorisation email (you can always check the status of your ESTA online using your unique reference number). This is because your ESTA is automatically linked to your passport, so that when US border patrol scan your passport, they can see that you have an ESTA. In the same vein, if you have two passports, and you travel to the United States under the passport that is not connected to the ESTA, the border patrol agent will not be able to see that you are authorised to travel. For this reason, it is very important that you use the passport linked to your ESTA application when travelling to the USA. When you get a new passport, you need to apply for ESTA again just like you did the first time round, and this authorisation will have a full validity of two years.

Another point worth making is that if your ESTA application is not authorised, you are perfectly able to submit another application, but there is no reason to expect a different response: the ESTA system is primarily automated, and so if a cross-check somewhere has detected that you are not eligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Programme, it will just provide the same result again. The only reason to try a second application is if you think you may have made a mistake in your original application, in which case you can look at where you went wrong and try again. In the unlikely event that your ESTA application is not approved, you will need to apply for a traditional US visa in order to travel to the United States.

Last-minute ESTA applications are always a stressful endeavour

Many travellers who have connecting flights in the USA do not realise that they need an ESTA for this, and do not find out that it is a requirement until they get to the airport. In most cases, they can still submit their online ESTA applications and get a response in time, but it is not a risk worth taking and not all travellers are so lucky. So, be aware, even if you are in the United States for just an hour before taking an onwards flight, you need to have ESTA authorisation. This is because you will technically be entering the country and going through the same immigration procedures as any other passenger.

On a final note, it is worth clarifying that everything is back to normal now with the ESTA system. The temporary faults have been amended and all citizens of Visa Waiver Programme member countries can now apply for ESTAs normally. Remember, the application takes place entirely online – you just need to have your passport to hand and a debit or credit card. The application itself takes around ten to 15 minutes and it consists in providing your personal details and answering some security questions. Once submitted, you will receive an email within 72 hours (and generally much sooner) confirming that your application has either been approved, denied or is pending. If it is in the latter category, this will generally revert to approved within a few hours, so just keep an eye on it and worry not.

Once you have your approved ESTA application, you don’t need to do anything else. You can make a note of your authorisation number, but you will not be required to show this when you arrive in the United States. As we mentioned previously, your ESTA is automatically linked to your passport, so the border patrol agent welcoming you into the country will be able to see this in the system. With your ESTA application complete and approved, you are now authorised to visit the United States as a tourist or on business, as well as a few other reasons (such as medical procedures or short-term study not for academic credit). If you are going to the United States to live or work, you will need to apply for the corresponding visa, regardless of the fact that you have a valid ESTA.

The bottom line: apply for your ESTA as soon as you know you will be travelling, and you will avoid any nasty surprises closer to your date of travel. Apply for ESTA now.

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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