The Visa Waiver Program ESTA application. Tips for 2019.


The ESTA application is a quick, online form, that potential visitors to the USA can fill out in order to visit the country under the Visa Waiver Programme. There are currently 38 member countries of the programme, including the United Kingdom. Citizens of these countries can travel under the Visa Waiver Programme as tourists or on business, avoiding the hassle of applying for a traditional US visa.

All in all, a large reason behind the existence of the Visa Waiver Programme is to facilitate travel to the USA. The simple process and the lack of bureaucracy help to boost tourism and trade, and indeed the ESTA and the VWP have been a great success in terms of reaching this goal. That said, there are some things that are often misunderstood or poorly explained when it comes to the US ESTA, so here we aim to settle some of these queries and clarify a few things. Here we’ve put together the five most common misunderstandings surrounding the ESTA and the VWP…

1. The ESTA is not always valid for two years

Once you have filled in your online ESTA application form, you will receive an email within 24 hours, informing you of your approval status. Providing your application is approved (as is the case with the vast majority of applications), this email will tell you how long your ESTA is valid for, along with the details of your approval. In most cases, this will be two years from the date on which it was approved. This means you can use your ESTA to travel to the United States as many times as you wish during this two-year period, provided you adhere to the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme.

An ESTA will never be valid for any period longer than two years, but it is possible for it to be shorter. This is because your ESTA is intricately linked to your passport. When you fill in the online ESTA form, you need to provide your passport details. Whenever you get a new passport, many of these details change, such as the passport number itself, and the issuance and expiration dates. As a result, if your passport runs out, your ESTA is no longer valid, and you have to fill out a new application using the details of your new passport.

For this reason, if your passport expires within two years of your ESTA application, your ESTA expiry will be the same date as your passport expiry date. If your passport is due to expire soon, it is often a good idea to renew your passport before you fill out your ESTA application, preventing you from having to repeat this application in the near future.

2. Your ESTA actually only needs to be valid upon arrival in the United States

Perhaps surprisingly, your ESTA only needs to be valid when you arrive in the United States, and not when you leave. In fact, this is because your ESTA is really just a ticket to get you to a port of entry into the USA. The conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme still apply of course, so you cannot exceed the 90-day trip timer, nor can you seek work there. The point is that you will not have any issues when it comes to leaving the United States even if your ESTA has technically expired. Naturally, you will need to apply for a new ESTA the next time you plan to travel there.

3. The ESTA is a visa waiver, not a visa

There is often confusion around whether the ESTA is a type of visa, and the answer is definitively that it is not. However, the confusion is understandable. Whilst the process for applying for the ESTA is rather different to that of a US visa, the two procedures do share some similarities. The applicant pays for the application in both cases, s/he is vetted and screened via a complex web of international databases, s/he makes a series of declarations, and s/he is given the travel authorisation for a determined period of time. However, actual US visa applications entail significantly greater costs and waiting times, whereas the ESTA application is easy and entirely carried out online.

4. The 90-day timer resets when you leave the country… But not always

As part of the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme, travellers are allowed to remain in the country, as tourists or on business, for periods of up to 90 days at a time, within the validity period of their ESTA. When you leave the country, this 90-day timer generally resets. For instance, if you have a business trip in the USA in January for 2 weeks, then return to the UK for a month before going back again, this ESTA ‘clock’ returns to zero, instead of these first two weeks counting towards the 90 days.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. If you travel to adjacent islands, Mexico or Canada as part of your trip to America, the time spent in these places still contributes to these 90 days. This is essentially to stop you going into Mexico or Canada after three months to ‘reset the clock’. Remember, if for any reason you do need to spend longer than 90 days in the United States, you will need to apply for the relevant visa for your travel purposes.

Furthermore, these countries have their own travel authorisation systems in place, so you will need to make sure you adhere to these too. 

5. The ESTA alone does not grant you entry into the United States

The ESTA is the tool you need to get yourself to the US border. The ESTA application form serves as an opportunity for you to be pre-screened, and for you to declare certain information about yourself. However, once you land there, it is the decision of a Border Patrol Agent as to whether or not to let you in to the country.

When you show your passport at a border control post, it is likely that the agent will ask you a range of questions about your trip. These questions may cover what you are doing in the United States, where you are staying, where you will be visiting, whether you’ve been before, etc. It is also possible that you’ll be asked about your financial resources, what you do for a living, and how you will be affording your trip. Of course these questions vary from one person to the next, but the point is not to be alarmed if you are asked these kinds of things.

These questions are essentially just to ensure that you do not intend to move to the United States for work. Whilst they can seem a little intimidating, it’s important that you don’t worry, and just answer politely and honestly to make the process as smooth as possible. If for any reason you are suspected of having lied on your ESTA application, or to be attempting to migrate to the USA, you will be put back on the same aircraft that you boarded to arrive in the country, and returned to your port of origin.

Once you’re aware of these five things, every other aspect of the ESTA is essentially straight forward and easy to understand. They should also help you to ascertain whether the ESTA is valid for your travel purposes, or whether a US visa would be more appropriate. They should also clear up any doubts you had about the two key timeframes associated with the ESTA: the 90-day timer, and the two-year validity period.

As a general rule, and unless your passport is set to expire soon, it’s a good idea to apply for your ESTA application online as soon as you know you will be travelling to the USA. Though the process is incredibly quick, and applications are generally approved within 24 hours, there is always the possibility that your application will be refused. If this happens, you will need to follow the traditional US visa application process in order to be granted travel authorisation for the United States. This process is generally much lengthier, so it’s good to prepare for it well in advance if necessary.

Bear these things in mind when you complete your online ESTA application, and enjoy your great American adventure!

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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