The ESTA or Electronic System for Travel Authorization is an automated system designed by the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether travelers to the US are eligible to enter the country without applying for a visa.
ESTA is a key requirement of the VWP (Visa Waiver Program). Visitors who do not have a valid or approved ESTA cannot enter the country even if all other requirements of the VWP are fulfilled by them.
The VWP (Visa Waiver Program)
This program enables citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries to travel to the US for business or tourism for stays up to 90 days or less without getting a visa. You can use the Visa Waiver Program to visit the US if you fulfill the below requirements:
You are a national of the 38 countries that are part of the VWP
You are traveling to the country for business or tourism
Your stay will be for a maximum of 90 days or less
You do not hold a valid US visitor visa
You are travelling on an approved carrier, if arriving by sea or air, and hold a return trip ticket to any foreign country
A change was implemented in the VWP since 2016. Certain groups of people would no longer be allowed to travel to the US under the VWP.
Travelers affected by that change include:
Citizens of visa waiver countries who hold the nationality of Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan.
Citizens of participating countries of VWP who have been in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen or Libya since March 01, 2011. However, there are some exceptions for military personnel and diplomats.
You must adhere to the guidelines mentioned above to travel to the US under the VWP. In case you do not fulfill these requirements, applying for a visa becomes mandatory.
Since 12th January, 2009, you need to register with ESTA through the system’s website before planning your travel. This authorization is valid for multiple entries to the country over a 2-year period. You are eligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program once you have obtained an authorization through the ESTA. The process asks questions about criminal convictions, and positive replies to the questions which are asked during the ESTA application process about convictions mean you will have to apply for a visa and are not eligible to visit under the VWP.
The ESTA process
Assuming your personal information does not show any previous criminal history or potential security threats, you can expect to get a response within seconds. All you need to do is submit the required information on the system’s website and then check ESTA status. In case you are denied the ESTA, you can try to check the reasons for the denial and apply again.
The ESTA fees
Visitors entering the US under the VWP have to pay for each ESTA application they submit. The fee for each such application is $14 USD. The total amount includes $4 USD as the processing charge and $10 USD as the authorization charge. In the event of the ESTA denial, you will only be charged for the processing fee and will not need to pay the authorization fee. You can pay the fee in your country’s currency with the applicable rate of exchange. Payments can be made only through PayPal or credit card. If you do not have any of these options, you may need to ask someone else to make the payment on your behalf.
ESTA for groups and children
Every person visiting the US needs to have a valid ESTA, including children. Ideally, you should use ESTA group application on the system’s official website to save time. However, there will be one contact person from the group who will be paying ESTA fees for the applications. ESTA applications for children under the age of 18 have to be completed and submitted by their parents or a third-party. The cost for obtaining the ESTA for children is the same as that of adults with the validity too remaining the same – of 2 years. Since the US authorities consider people travelling through the country as visitors of the USA, it is essential for you to get the ESTA even if you use the country as a transit point.
How does ESTA differ from visa?
Though an ESTA may look like a visa, it is not so in reality. To begin with, ESTA is all about travel to the US, in particular, and the system is only open to participating countries benefitting from the VWP. The ESTA makes travel pre-requirements easier for business travelers and tourists from the qualifying countries. The ESTA online application process needs less requirements compared to a visa process and the response comes immediately. This makes it a more practical, comfortable, and convenient option for visitors from participating countries who travel to the US for a period equal to 90 days or less.
Here are some instances when it is better to go for a visa over the ESTA:
If you intend to be compensated for your work during your stay in the country
If you plan to carry out professional labor over a few hours
If you travel to study in the US, as visas for studying are comparatively simpler to get and offer some specific advantages
If you are going to get married in the US, you must not process your ESTA application; you should apply for a visa instead
Also, if you are planning to emigrate to the United States, your only options is to apply for a visa, which enables you to update your residency status to resident and gradually to citizen. A travel application made through the ESTA, in any case, does not allow changing, renewing, or lengthening the reason of the visit or modifying its status. As a result, the ESTA would not enable you to apply for residency as a resident or as a long-term visitor.
Approved ESTA applications are given a validity period of 2 years or until the expiration of passport, whichever happens first. Though multiple visits to the country are allowed with the approved ESTA, you may only stay for a maximum of 90 days at a time.
How to stay protected during ESTA application
There are unofficial websites operated by private entities that may charge ignorant visitors much more that what the ESTA actually costs. If a site is telling you to pay more than $14 USD, then you are probably on the wrong one. Though the unofficial sites look almost like their official counterpart, the correct site is https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/.
If you have already been ripped off by a third-party website, try to contact your bank and see if the transaction can be stopped. To confirm that your ESTA number is in the US authorities’ system and is valid, it is advisable to contact the US government to avoid facing any problem when you finally arrive in the country.