Making sure you have the right visa can be one of the biggest hassles of travelling abroad, so we're bringing you a series of bitesized guides to some of the more complicated travel regulations, including the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) and Europe's Schengen Visa.
What is it?
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an online certification system designed to enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows nationals of certain countries entry to the United States without a visa. It has been in use since 12 January 2009 and adds a layer of security that allows the Department of Homeland Security to determine, in advance of travel, whether or not an individual is eligible to travel to the USA under the VWP and if such travel poses a security risk.
The most important thing to remember is that ESTA is required ahead of travel and has replaced the I-94W form you had to manually fill before landing in the USA. ESTA approval does not guarantee you entry to the United States. It only authorises you to board an aeroplane or cruise ship heading to the USA without a visa. US Customs and Border Protection Officers still determine all admissions.
Who is it for?
ESTA applies to everyone travelling to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program for up to 90 days for the purposes of business or pleasure. The following countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic*, Denmark, Estonia*, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary*, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia*, Liechtenstein, Lithuania*, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Malta*, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia*, Slovenia, South Korea*, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom.
* Citizens of these countries are required to present electronic passports.
How much does it cost?
It is free to apply although the US government might introduce a fee in future. A number of companies offer to sort out ESTA applications at a cost but they cannot guarantee your application will be successful. These companies are not endorsed by the US government.
ESTA is valid for two years or until your passport expires. Repeated travel to the USA is permitted during this period. If you get a new passport or any of your details change during this time you will need a new ESTA.
How to apply
Apply online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ at any time prior to travel. Ideally, you should apply as soon as your trip is planned. Once you have applied, you will get one of three responses: Authorization Approved, Travel Not Authorized (in which case you should obtain a nonimmigrant visa at a US embassy or consulate before you travel), or Authorization Pending (check the ESTA website for updates within 72 hours to receive a final response).
Working days required
In most cases, eligibility to travel is determined immediately.
Don’t forget to check back next week for our bitesized guide to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.