The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated screening program that evaluates potential US visitors prior to travel. ESTA determines visitors’ eligibility to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens of designated countries to stay in the US for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. Everyone planning to enter the US under the VWP must get an ESTA.
You need to apply for an ESTA if you are traveling to the US under the VWP to either: 1) Transit through the US, or 2) stay for up to 90 days as a tourist or for business that does not require a visa. You can see a list of countries eligible for the VWP below. If you have obtained a visa for tourism, work, or study in the US, you do not need to also apply for an ESTA.
An ESTA travel authorization establishes that you are eligible to travel to the US, but it does not guarantee admission. Only a Customs and Border Protection officer at your port of entry into the US can grant final admission.
An ESTA authorization is valid for two years, pre-approving you for any trips of 90 days or less to the US during that time. ESTA is only valid for the specific passport it was issued for, which means you do have to reapply if your passport is lost, stolen, or expires within this two-year period.
You can apply for an ESTA as soon as you begin planning your trip to the US. You don’t need to have a set itinerary or confirmed tickets in order to apply. Keep in mind that you will need ESTA approval in order to board your flight, and therefore you risk being denied boarding if you wait until the last minute to apply. The advantage of applying as early as possible is that if you are denied ESTA, you will still have time to apply for an appropriate visa that will allow you to travel to the US.
The ESTA application process is completed online. There are no forms to print and you don’t need to go to a US embassy or consulate. For the online application, you’ll be required to provide basic information including your name, birth date, and passport number, as well as answer questions about any history of communicable diseases, convictions or deportations.
After completing the application, you’ll receive one of three possible responses: Authorization approved, authorization pending, or travel not authorized. Most applicants will be approved immediately, while some will need to check again in 72 hours for the decision.
If your ESTA application is denied but you still want to travel to the US, you can apply for a non-immigrant visa at a US embassy or consulate. There are a number of situations in which you may not be able to visit the US under the VWP, but can visit after obtaining an appropriate visa.