The summer is in full swing and and that means a lot more holidaymakers crossing the skies to embark on their summer breaks. As a hugely popular travel destination amongst Brits, the USA sees an influx of tourists throughout this time, which includes hikes in flight and accommodation prices and busier airports. Busier airports mean longer waiting times.
So, what can you expect when travelling to the USA this summer?
Let’s start with your airport of origin. As well as all the usual business travel going on throughout the year, summertime welcomes a significant increase in leisure travel. Airports are busier and flights are fuller. When it comes to travelling to the USA from the UK, it’s important to arrive at the airport in good time. It’s typically safe to leave two hours until your flight is due to depart, though it is highly recommended to leave at least three for transatlantic flights in the summer, particularly if the airport is big, you have any mobility issues or are travelling with young ones.
When you are checking in for your flight to the USA, your airline is required to check that you have travel authorisation. If you are travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme, you will have already acquired your ESTA in advance, and this will be electronically associated with your passport. This means that when you hand over your passport at the time of check-in, the airline will be able to see that you have the appropriate travel authorisation.
Airlines need to check whether you have travel authorisation because they are responsible for bringing you straight back to the UK if you it turns out you do not upon arrival. This is a nasty moment to realise you did not get your ESTA authorisation online, and can often come as a shock to passengers travelling through the USA in transit. In this regard, everybody is required to have travel authorisation, and even if the USA is not your end destination, you will still need an ESTA for the time you are physically in the USA, no matter how brief.
Fortunately, the ESTA application process is generally very fast, and travellers have often been lucky to apply for theirs at the last minute in the airport. It goes without saying that this is not advisable. You should apply for your ESTA as soon as you know you are travelling to the USA, just in case there are any issues and you need to apply for a visa instead. Though a response is immediate in the majority of cases, it can take up to three days if an automatic decision cannot be made.
With all this in mind, arrive at the airport fully prepared, having done your ESTA application and with all your travel documentation easily to hand. The two longest waits on this side of the flight are checking in and security, and both are unpredictable. Some airlines offer self-check in screens, where you scan your passport and then drop off your bags. This speeds up the process but you cannot count on it. Obviously, those travelling in business class have a more expedited experience too, but it is never a bad idea to leave plenty of time during the busy season.
As for security, this depends entirely on the day and time of day. Bear in mind that all passengers are going through security, and so the more flights are soon to depart, the busier it will be. There is no rule of thumb for knowing how long this will take; every airport is different, and queues can form rapidly just from a few people forgetting to take their liquids out their bags. If you do not want the hassle, fast track security is a good way to cut down on this wait and free up some time – this can generally be purchased in advance or at the airport.
As for the other end, once you arrive in the USA, this is also normally busier this time of year. When it comes to going through immigration and customs, travellers are divided into US citizens and non-US citizens. Again, waiting times vary depending on the airport, the day of the week and the time of day. Waits can be high during the summer, with some airports seeing times of over an hour at busy times. From the perspective of border patrol, this is a process that cannot be rushed, and each person is given the time needed to properly ensure that they are entering the country legally.
It is important to keep your documentation to hand during this process, including the information on the address you will be staying at first during your trip. When it’s your turn, a customs and border patrol agent will take your passport and will generally ask you a few questions about your trip. If this is your first time visiting the USA, these questions can sometimes seem a little strange or even intrusive, as we are so used to seamless border crossing across Europe. However, this is a very normal part of the process, and all you need to do is answer honestly and politely. You may be asked about the reason for your trip, where you will be visiting, or how long your trip will last, as well as other questions about your work and how you are paying for your holiday. Remember, these questions are purely to ensure that you are entering the country legitimately and were truthful on your online ESTA application form.
As part of this process, the Customs and Border Patrol Agent will also take a digital photo and your fingerprints. Some airports are now employing the use of automated terminals too, where these entry formalities are carried out digitally. This speeds up the waiting times, but is not available at all airports. In any case, an immigration officer may wish to carry out additional checks, which take place in a separate room. It is important to remember that the decision as to whether or not to grant you entry into the United States lies with Border Patrol. Your ESTA travel authorisation is simply authorisation to travel to the United States and does not grant any right for you to remain there if an agent deems that you are visiting in breach of the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme. This is no cause for concern, but rather a reminder that you must be truthful on your online ESTA application. If for any reason you think you may need to spend longer than the permitted 90 days in the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme, you must apply for the corresponding US visa in advance.
If you are travelling in transit to another country, you will still need to undergo this security process. After this, you will be directed to the connections area for your next flight so that you can proceed smoothly with your journey.
Travel times are generally a little longer throughout the USA during the summer, but measures are in place to limit this and keep everyone’s journey as smooth as possible. The most important waiting time you need to consider is your ESTA application, which does not change, regardless of what time of year you request it. As we mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to apply for ESTA online as soon as you know you will be needing it. The application itself only takes around ten to 15 minutes to complete, and you will need to answer a few questions and provide your passport details.
Once your ESTA application is submitted, the system will try to reach an automatic decision, based on your details and answers, along with cross-references with a range of databases. Generally, the system is able to reach a decision automatically, and you will be informed of the outcome via email within a matter of minutes. Nevertheless, it is perfectly normal if this takes longer.
The vast majority of ESTA applications are approved, but if yours is not, you will need to take the necessary steps to apply for a traditional US visa, which is a somewhat lengthier process. Once your ESTA is approved it will be valid for two years, or until your passport expires (whichever comes first). During this validity period, you can make as many trips to the USA as you wish, as a tourist or on business (among a few other travel reasons), provided the trip falls under the scope of the Visa Waiver Programme. Each of these trips can last up to a maximum of 90 days.
Allow yourself plenty of time to arrange your travel authorisation and get to your flight on time, and you will be able to ensure your USA trip is comfortable and easy this summer!
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.