What types of travel are authorised with the ESTA Visa Waiver?

Visit family in the US with the ESTA visa waiver

Discover the approved purposes of travel for British citizens under the Visa Waiver Programme

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, also known as the ESTA, is an American programme that allows British citizens to travel to the United States without the need for a traditional visa. However, the ESTA waiver cannot be used for all travel purposes. Learn more about the US visa waiver programme and what types of travel are authorised under it.

What is the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation?

ESTA is an approval system that pre-screens individuals and approves travellers for short-term travel (90 days or fewer) to the United States, Pureto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Not all travellers are eligible for ESTA, and not all travel circumstances will allow you to travel through the visa waiver programme.

This authorisation serves as a security screening and also allows the US to track the entry and exit of foreign short-term travellers.And for travellers it offers the exceptional convenience of sojerns for authorized travel purposes of up to 90 days.

Determining your eligibility status for the ESTA

Because the UK is a VWP country, British citizens will need to fill out either the ESTA application or a traditional visa application depending on the purpose of travel and the intended length of stay. Regardless of travel purpose, if your stay is more than 90 days, you will need to apply for a traditional visa.

Even if your final destination is not in the United States, you may have a flight that requires a stopover or flight transfer in the US. ESTA approval is required in these instances. 

What type of travel is permitted with the Visa Waiver?

There are many types of travel permitted under the ESTA visa, provided the period of travel is 90 days or fewer. The types of permitted travel include:

  • Travel for leisure or tourism
  • Visiting family and friends
  • Most medical procedures
  • Some business travel, which includes contract negotiations and meetings
  • Transit stops (stopovers and flight transfers in the US to other countries)

Travel for medical purposes is permitted in most instances, but the treatment must be completed in less than 90 days and the traveller must not have a communicable disease. Pregnant travellers must provide evidence that they do not plan on giving birth in the United States. 

ESTA in transit: Note that stopovers and flight transfers on US soil (also defined as ‘Transit’) require you submit a visa waiver application.

What if my purpose of travel is not authorised under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP)?

If your purpose of travel is not authorised under the VWP, you must apply for a traditional visa, which is considered a bit more complicated and requires more paperwork and additional expense.

Note that travelling for education purposes is typically not permitted under the ESTA waiver. In certain situations, the electronic visa waiver may used for education purposes provided the following conditions are met:

  • Coursework is completed in fewer than 90 days
  • Coursework or teaching hours may not exceed 18 hours per week
  • Coursework cannot be part of a professional certificate or degree program

In some instances, travelling for business may require a traditional visa. Business travel will be approved under ESTA if the traveller is paid by a business outside the United States and if the purpose of the business dealing will benefit a non-US country. This can include meetings and consultations, attending meetings, consultations, trainings, or conferences, contract negotiations, and observing business operations.

Foreign media, which includes press, broadcasting, and the film industry, must apply for traditional visas regardless of the duration of travel.

What do I need to apply for the ESTA?

British citizens will need to apply for the visa waiver online and will need to already be in possession of a valid passport. You must not be in possession of a current visitor’s visa. To apply, you will be asked to supply the following information:

  • Passport information
  • Biographical information and any aliases or other names
  • Employer information (if applicable)
  • Contact information, including email address, home address, and phone number

We are available to assist with the application process. All application are processed electronically and put through a security database, and most are processed very quickly. An incomplete application or an error in the information provided could result in delays, so it is critical that it is filled out accurately.

How long is ESTA approval valid?

The visa waiver is valid for two years, or until your passport expires, whichever occurs first, and the authorization is valid for multiple trips within the 2-year period. However, you must re-apply if any of your primary information changes, such as name, gender, or any ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to the application security questions. 

Travel to the United States visa-free

Under the US Visa Waiver Programme, British nationals can go anywhere in the US, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Get the latest travel news and updates by reading our ESTA travel blog 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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