Ten things you should know about the ESTA and the VWP

With an aim to clear up some of the misconceptions and confusion around the ESTA, we’ve gathered together the top ten things you should know about the whole process and how it works…

As UK citizens, we can travel to the USA without the need to apply for a visa thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme. Instead of a visa, Brits can travel to the United States using the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, or ‘ESTA’. Despite being a simple process, many travellers are unsure exactly how the Visa Waiver Programme works, and what exactly the ESTA is.

1. The ESTA is not a visa

When you are approved to travel to the USA with an ESTA, you are actually being approved to visit the country without the need for a visa. This is because, due to the information you have provided and your personal details, you have passed the automatic vetting process and have been deemed eligible to visit the USA. A visa is a separate form of travel authorisation, which, in the case of the USA, entails a much lengthier process. When you apply for ESTA online, you are informed of your approval status within 24 hours via email, whereas the approval process can take many weeks when applying for a visa.


2. Once approved, your ESTA is valid for two years

Unlike visas, ESTAs can only ever be valid for two years. This two-year period begins on the day you receive your approval, which, more often than not, is the same day you make your online ESTA application. The only exception to this is if your passport expires period to the end of this two-year period, in which case your ESTA will end on the same date (for this reason, it’s a good idea to make sure your passport has at least two years left on it when applying for ESTA – this will prevent you from having to re-apply for ESTA in the near future). Unlike certain other types of travel authorisation, the ESTA cannot be extended when you are in the USA, however this wouldn’t be necessary in any case. As long as your ESTA is valid on the day you arrive in the USA, it does not matter if your ESTA has expired by the time you leave. Nevertheless, you still must adhere to the important 90-day ‘clock’ of your ESTA…


3. The ESTA allows you to travel to the USA for periods of up to 90 days at a time

The 90-day ‘clock’ of your ESTA starts from the time you arrive in the USA. This means that you are not allowed to outstay this period under any circumstances, as it is likely to jeopardise your ability to re-enter the country in the future. It is also important to know that, if you want to travel to neighbouring territories during your trip (such as Canada or Mexico), this 90-day ESTA clock keeps ticking. This is to prevent travellers from essentially resetting this clock by border hopping. However, with the exception of neighbouring territories, the ESTA clock does reset when you travel to other countries. Bear in mind, if it looks like you are repeatedly returning to the USA with the ESTA for 90-day periods with little time in between, it is likely to raise a flag to border patrol agents. If you do need to spend longer than 90 days in the United States, you will need to apply for the corresponding visa.


4. The ESTA allows you to travel for tourism or business purposes

Provided you are travelling for periods of 90 days or less, your ESTA allows you to visit the United States for pleasure or business purposes. It’s important to understand what is understood as ‘business purposes’, as this does not encompass travelling to the USA to seek work or to take on a job position for a local employer. Rather, travelling for business purposes covers visiting the USA to attend meetings, conferences, congresses, etc. As well as tourism and business, there are some other specific circumstances under which you can travel to the USA with the ESTA. For example, you can go to the USA with ESTA for certain short-term medical treatments, or to attend academic courses that are under three months in less, and which do not constitute academic credit.


5. You can receive three different responses to your ESTA application

After having submitted your online ESTA application, you will receive a response indicating your approval status within 24 hours (and often sooner). There are three different responses you can receive:

  • Authorisation Approved: this means that your ESTA has been definitively approved, and you are free to being using it immediately. You will receive your official confirmation number, and you will be able to see the date on which your ESTA expires. This will either be two years after your approval date, or the same date on which your passport expires (whichever is sooner).
  • Authorisation Pending: an automatic decision could not be made on your ESTA application, and thus it is going to a secondary stage of vetting. A definitive decision will be made within 72 hours.
  • Travel Not Authorized: you are not eligible to travel to the USA with ESTA. This means that you will have to apply for the corresponding visa in order to visit the United States.

The vast majority of applications are approved, and applicants are immediately authorised to visit the USA. However, in cases where applications are not approved, we are not provided with the specific reason for this denial. It’s always a good idea to go over your application carefully before submitting, and a member of our team will also go through your application prior to final submission to check for errors or omissions.


6. All travellers must have their own, individual ESTA applications

Regardless of age, all people travelling must have their own ESTA approvals. This means that a separate application must be made for each passenger. Of course, you may submit an ESTA on behalf of another person, a child for example, as long as all information is accurate and up to date.


7. The final decision lies with Border Patrol Agents

The ESTA grants you the right to travel to US land, however you are still subject to go through Border Patrol when arriving in the United States. The final decision as to whether or not to grant you access into the country lies with Border Patrol Agent to whom you present your passport. As security is strict in the United States, it is quite likely that you’ll be asked a couple of questions regarding the purpose of your trip, your economic situation, the length of your stay, etc. Make the process as easy as possible by answering clearly and honestly, and don’t be alarmed or offended by any questions – it’s all a normal part of the process.


8. The whole ESTA application process is automated, and carried out entirely online

Unlike any US visa applications, when you apply for ESTA the entire process is online, and no physical documentation is involved whatsoever. It’s also an entirely automated process, which means that your data is automatically cross-checked with a range of databases, and the decision as to whether or not to approve your ESTA is based on information that can be assessed digitally.


9. You can’t renew the ESTA, but you can re-apply

There are no circumstances under which you can re-apply for ESTA or extend it. However, you are welcome to re-apply for it as many times as necessary. Given that the ESTA application itself only takes around ten minutes to complete, this is as quick as any renewal process could be, and thus it’s just as easy. It’s also worth mentioning that if your passport is lost or stolen, you will need to re-apply for ESTA before you travel to the USA again. This is because your ESTA is specifically tied to the passport that you used at the time of application, and so when you get a replacement passport you will need to fill out a new ESTA application.


10. If you’re unapproved for ESTA, you can still apply for visa

Being unapproved for ESTA does not jeopardise your chances of being approved for a US visa. Rather, the details that are specific to your ESTA have not been deemed suitable for travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme. It’s often a good idea to fill in your online ESTA application a few weeks before you plan to travel, just in case you are not approved. This will allow you sufficient time to go through the formal US visa application process through your nearest US embassy or consulate.

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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