The options and processes for travelling to the USA

With just a big old pond separating us, travelling to the USA is no major feat for UK citizens. Here we’ll be giving you the lowdown on how you can go about it, and what you’ll need to sort out in advance.

The traditional way for Brits to head stateside was to apply for a visa a couple of months before travelling. Now, this still applies in certain cases, but for most people travelling to the USA from the states, an alternative, electronic travel authorisation, known as the ‘ESTA’, is all that’s required. ESTA authorisation is part of the Visa Waiver Programme, eliminating the need for a visa in many cases.

What’s the difference?

Starting with the US visa, let’s take a look at who it’s for and what you need to do to get a hold of one.

US Visa

A US visa is primarily for people travelling to the USA to work or study. It is important to bear in mind the difference between travelling to work in the USA and visiting the USA on business. The latter category does not require a visa if the overall trip is less than 90 days (see the ESTA section), but Brits who have a job in the USA are required to have a B1visa, which is also applicable to volunteers.

Visas are also relevant to tourists who will be in the USA for longer than 90 days, or who are not eligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Programme. In this case, they will need to apply for a B2 visa. There are also many other categories of visa, corresponding with certain professions, such as diplomats, investors, journalists, foreign military staff, etc.

The US visa can last for a varying amount of time depending on your specific visa. The process, however, is somewhat extensive. Applicants need to submit their passports in order to apply for a visa, and make an interview appointment with the US embassy or consulate (in London, Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff). This entails a certain amount of travel at the expense of the applicant before being granted a visa. The only exception to this is people aged under 14 or over 80, who do not always need to attend the interview. Visas can take 60 days to process, but even that is not guaranteed, and so the application should be submitted as far in advance as possible.

Emergency appointments can be made, but the rubric of the term ‘emergency’ is somewhat narrow, and therefore don’t count on being able to get a last minute visa unless you have a genuine medical emergency.

The red tape of acquiring a visa is initially rather off-putting, and the following section regarding the ESTA will be far more appealing to those who are eligible. Nevertheless, the visa is less restrictive than the ESTA in terms of its time frame and what visitors can do in the States.


If you don’t fall into one of the categories mentioned in the previous section, then you may well find that the ESTA is the perfect way for you to go about your trip to the USA. The ESTA forms part of the Visa Waiver Programme, which simplifies the whole travel procedure for citizens of certain countries (and that includes the UK!).

ESTA stands for ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorisation’, which is the first clue as to the lack of physical red tape. When applying for ESTA, there is no need to physically attend interviews, or even send anything in the post. It is all done online.

So let’s outline who the ESTA is for. Essentially, the most common category of visitors travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme is tourists. If you plan to visit the USA for a period of 90 days or less for tourism, then the ESTA is designed with you in mind. You can also use the ESTA to travel for business, but don’t forget that this is different from working in the USA, as mentioned in the previous section.

It is also possible to travel to the USA with ESTA for medical purposes, but don’t forget, if you’re travelling with ESTA, you are not allowed to stay in the USA for a period of longer than 90 days. The other most common category is passengers in transit; this means that if you are travelling to a destination that is outside of the USA, but you have to enter the USA in order to get there (a layover flight, for example), then you are required to have an ESTA.

Aside from the 90-day period of stay, there is another important timeframe relevant to the ESTA, and it’s important not to confuse them. This is its duration. The ESTA is valid for 2 years from the date you receive travel authorization. This means that, within that 2 years, you are eligible to travel to the USA multiple times, each time for no longer than 90 days.

This last point can cause a little confusion, so it’s important to highlight one fundamental factor. The ESTA grants you permission to travel to the USA, but it is the border patrol agents who get the final say on who gets into the country. It’s likely that they’ll ask you a few questions; these can be a little intimidating on the surface, but they are purely trying to make sure that you were honest in your application and that you are not travelling to the country for any reason that does not fall within the scope of the ESTA. For example, you may be asked about how you are funding your trip, what you do for a living, who you will be staying with, etc. So, although you are allowed to travel to the USA as many times as you like within 2 years, if you are travelling frequently for long periods of time, this is likely to cause some suspicion, and you will need to justify your reason.

Essentially, any British citizen can apply for ESTA. You simply need to apply for your ESTA online, where you will be asked to fill out an ESTA application form. This form is simple, and the whole application process can be completed within a quarter of an hour. Provided your answers are satisfactory, you will receive your authorisation within 24 hours. Again, this is all done digitally, and once you have the authorisation you’re good to go. The vast majority of applications are approved, however if they are not, there is normally a good reason for it. If for some reason your application is denied, you are free to apply again, but it is very important that you are completely honest in your application; remember, border patrol agents are likely to double check your reasons for travel, so make sure you are eligible to apply, and if not, find out which visa best corresponds to your needs.

When you apply for ESTA online, you will be sent the status of your application within 24 hours. If your online ESTA application is approved, you will be given an authorisation code that is specific to you. Essentially, this is the only thing you need, along with your passport of course. It’s best to print out this authorisation so that you have it as a reference, but because this is an electronic system, the information will automatically register on the system when you travel to the USA.

With regard to your passport, it is your responsibility to ensure that this is in date during the entire duration of your trip. Fundamentally, it is your passport that allows you to be in another country. If your passport expires during the validity timeframe of your ESTA then your ESTA automatically expires.

ESTA vs Visa

Clearly, the most favourable option for the majority of people wanting to visit the USA is the ESTA. It comes with none of the hassle, red tape, waiting times and physical interviews that visas entail, and is always a cheaper option. The visa, on the other hand, is the only option for people travelling for certain purposes, and for any British citizen who will spend longer than 90 days in the USA.

Despite the fact that ESTA authorisation only takes 24 hours, it is always advisable to apply for it as far in advance as possible too; you do not need to have flights booked or dates arranged in order to apply. A wide timeframe is always a good idea just in case your ESTA is denied, in which case you would have to follow the traditional visa application process.

Thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme, more and more Brits are holidaying in the United States, which goes hand in hand with cheaper airfares and more flights. It’s a great time to visit the USA, and it’s never been easier. Simply fill out on the online ESTA application form, make your secure payment instantly, and wait for the results

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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