Traveling to the USA, regardless of your reason, requires plenty of passes and applications. While this isn’t unique to the US, it’s more obvious because of the sheer number of visitors the country gets each year.
Even if you’re traveling for a vacation, you might need a visa, advance passenger information, and electronic visa authorization. Below, we’ll discuss one of the more potentially complicated aspects, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
We’ll also cover some brief tips for traveling to the USA.
Travelling to USA with ESTA but what is the ESTA?
The ESTA is basically an application form that you fill out before traveling to the USA. For countries in the Visa Waiver Program, it serves as your eligibility document for not having a visa.
It was first announced in 2007 as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act to improve national security regarding visitors and those traveling through the country. Along with proving that someone is eligible to travel to the USA under the program, it also confirms that they don’t pose a security risk by doing so.
Various criteria determine a person’s ESTA eligibility, which we’ll discuss in detail below. First, though, it’s worth looking at the Visa Waiver Program, as this is what ultimately determines whether you should apply for ESTA.
Travelling to USA with ESTA – The Visa Waiver Program
The US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) should be a fairly obvious concept. In short, it means that people from eligible countries don’t need certain types of visas when traveling to the USA. Not every type of visa falls under the program, so it’s worth checking whether the type you need does.
The VWP covers Type B visas, which relate to tourism and business stays. You can travel to the US for up to 90 days (3 months) for tourism or business purposes without applying for a B visa.
A business visa (B-1) covers:
- Business consultation
- Convention or conference
- Short-term training session
- Contract negotiation
The most important thing to note is that, for a B-1 visa, you must not be paid by an American source for your time in the USA.
A tourist visa (B-2) covers:
- Visiting friends or family
- Medical treatment
- Attending social events, including concerts, sports events, etc.
- Attending a short recreational course
Again, none of these relate to work, meaning you must not receive any money for anything you do under a B-2 visa.
Eligible Countries when travelling to USA with ESTA
So, the second most important part of the ESTA is the eligible countries list. If your country of residence is on the VWP list, you don’t need to apply for a Type B visa if your trip is less than 90 days.
The list is fairly long but includes most of Europe/the EU and several Asian countries. You can find a full list on the US government’s website.
If you meet all of the conditions listed so far, you’re likely eligible under the ESTA. Obtaining this document doesn’t necessarily make traveling to the USA easier, but it is a legal requirement.
Applying for the ESTA and travelling to USA with ESTA
Along with the requirements listed above, the only other things you need are your passport, contact details, and the payment fee. This is currently $14. You might be asked to submit a few more details, such as where you’re staying in the USA and your employer’s details.
The application process isn’t particularly difficult and mostly requires you to submit your information. The ESTA website advises that it takes around 25 minutes, and in most cases, you’ll receive your answer within a few seconds.
For some, the ESTA VISA USA application can be an overwhelming task. In this case, you could a paid ESTA Visa application service and pay a little extra to get professional help.
That said, it also advises that you apply for the ESTA at least 72 hours before your flight. While you can apply sooner than this, it’s best to have everything in place before flying.
An ESTA is valid for 2 years, and you can use it to travel to the US multiple times within that period. Unless it expires after this 2-year period, the only other times you’ll need to update it are if you get a new passport or change your details.
The biggest benefit of this is that you don’t need to apply each time you travel, which is the case with other countries’ visa waiver programs. As such, if you’re a frequent business traveler, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth from it!
Who Doesn’t Need an ESTA when Travelling to USA?
In short, anyone who isn’t from a VWP country must still apply for Type B visas as usual. Also, if your trip is more than 90 days, you’ll need a normal visa.
But, the US government made several amendments to the VWP in 2015. While this is long enough ago that the people it impacts will likely be aware, it’s worth stating here.
The amendments cover anyone who has traveled to countries including Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. Similarly, it covers anyone who holds dual nationality from one of these countries and a VWP country.
The purpose of the ESTA is to be an extra security measure, and, as the US perceives these countries to be linked to international terrorism, it’s essentially blacklisted them. If you think this blacklisting will affect your application, speak to your country’s US Embassy or Consulate.
Tips for Travelling to USA with ESTA
So, along with getting all your documents in place, here are some other tips for traveling to the USA.
Lock your baggage with TSA locks
Using TSA-approved locks is probably the best way to work around the lock ban. TSA-approved locks can be unlocked only with the use of a master key. This means luggage screeners can look over your belongings if necessary, but they will remain secure to outsiders.
Take heed of international transit when travelling to USA with ESTA
Even if you’re just passing through the USA, you’ll need an ESTA. So, if you’re from a VWP country and are going elsewhere, make sure you apply before traveling. If you forget, you won’t be allowed on your flight. Before traveling to the USA, if you have booked a trip that transits through the US, prepare yourself to spend at least 2 hours between flights.
But, if you’re entering the USA by land (from Canada or Mexico), you don’t need an ESTA.
Travelling to USA with ESTA and a Visa Application
The USA is known for its rather complex and long-winded travel applications. There are layers within layers, much of which is the result of heightened security regulations. Rather than reforming the system, it just adds more applications and checks.
However, this is well beyond the control of a tourist or business traveler. As such, just ensure you have all the correct documents in place before you fly.