what is esta authorization

Since 2009, travelers under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) have been required to have ESTA travel authorization to enter the United States (minors included). ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It is an automated system that indicates a person’s eligibility to travel to the United States before boarding a U.S.-bound plane and if they pose a security risk to the country. The authorization system was introduced in the amended Section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen the integrity of the Visa Waiver Program as a whole. This is not a type of visa, so if you receive an approval notice do not operate under the assumption that it replaces a U.S. visa for entry. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, individuals traveling on a valid visa are not required to apply for ESTA. 

Who Needs an ESTA? 

The Visa Waiver Program allows individuals from specific countries to visit the U.S. for pleasure or business for up to 90 days without needing to obtain a visa. They do, however, need to have ESTA travel authorization. There are currently 40 participating countries.

esta travel authorization

The following individuals should apply :

  • Citizens or nationals of a Visa Waiver Program country
  • Individuals who do not have a visitor’s visa
  • Those traveling for 90 days or less
  • Individuals traveling to the U.S. for pleasure or business
  • Individuals who want to apply for a new authorization for one person or a group of applications for 2+ people

The Visa Waiver Program participating countries are as follows: 

Visa Waiver Program Participating Countries

Andorra

Finland

Latvia

Portugal

Australia

France

Liechtenstein

San Marino

Austria

Germany

Lithuania

Singapore

Belgium

Greece

Luxembourg

Slovakia

Brunei

Hungary

Malta

Slovenia

Chile

Iceland

Monaco

Spain

Croatia

Ireland

Netherlands

Sweden

Czech Republic

Italy

New Zealand

Switzerland

Denmark

Japan

Norway

Taiwan**

Estonia

Republic of Korea

Poland

United Kingdom*

Since citizens of the VWP participating countries do not need to apply for a visa, the required ESTA allows the Department of Homeland Security to evaluate if they pose a threat to the country before boarding a plane. “ESTA counterbalances vulnerabilities inherent in visa-free travel by adding a layer of advance scrutiny that enables DHS frontline personnel to focus even more on the small population of potentially dangerous travelers.”

As of April 1, 2016, all travelers must have an e-passport to use the VWP.  An e-Passport, denoted by the symbol, is an enhanced secure passport with an embedded electronic chip. E-Passports are issued by the proper passport issuing authority and must meet international standards for securing and storing information corresponding to the passport and bearer.

ESTA Authorization – Required Info to Apply

Have the following information available when applying for ESTA authorization:

  • Valid Passport (from a VWP country)
  • Email address
  • Home address
  • Phone number
  • Emergency contact email and phone
  • Other aliases (if applicable)
  • National ID or Personal ID number (if applicable)
  • Employer’s address & phone number (if applicable)
  • U.S. point of contact name/address/phone (if applicable)
  • Payment method for the application fee of $14.00

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is required to have ESTA authorization?

Individuals and citizens of VWP participating countries who want to travel to the United States (also including Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands of the U.S., and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) for pleasure or business need to have ESTA authorization. 

How much does ESTA cost to apply?

The application fee is $14, and valid payment methods are MasterCard, VISA, American Express, Discover, and PayPal.

Do children need to get the authorization? 

Whether they are traveling with an adult or not, minors need to get their individual ESTA authorization. 

If the U.S. is not my final travel destination, do I need ESTA authorization? 

Even if you are transiting through the U.S. to another country, you still need to get ESTA authorization or a visa. While completing your application, when it asks about your final destination address in the United States, you should put “in transit.” 

How long can you stay in the U.S. on an ESTA?

You can stay up to 90 days at a time.

What is the difference between an ESTA and a visa?

Obtaining a visa is a much longer process than getting ESTA travel authorization. Be aware that they are not the same and cannot be used interchangeably. Individuals from Visa Waiver Program participating countries traveling to the U.S. for 90 days or less for business or pleasure do not need a visa and can get ESTA authorization.

When is the best time to apply for travel authorization? 

The ideal time would be when you begin planning to travel to the U.S. Customers and Border Protection recommends that you apply at least 72 hours before travel. However, you can technically apply anytime before you board the plane.

How long does it take to get an ESTA?

You will get a response within three days of applying. 

What are the consequences if I do not apply for ESTA authorization?

Should you not apply and receive ESTA travel authorization, you may be denied boarding on the U.S.-bound plane or admission at the port of entry in the U.S. 

Where do I go to apply for ESTA authorization?

The official electronic system for travel authorization site.  

Follow the prompts and answer all the questions accurately, then click submit. You should get a response soon after applying. 

What does ESTA review?

ESTA checks whether a person is a security risk to the United States.

How can I apply for ESTA if I do not have internet access?

You are permitted to have a third party, like a travel agent or family member, submit the application on your behalf, but you need to be the ones answering the questions.

Do I need to bring a printed-out version of my approval to the airport?

You are not required to because the Department of Homeland Security relays your ESTA status to the airline carrier. Still, it is always an excellent choice to have a record of your application number to confirm your status just in case.

Is my information in the ESTA database safe? 

Yes, any personal information submitted through the ESTA website is safeguarded for privacy by the U.S. government. Information is protected and governed by U.S. laws and regulations, including but not limited to the Federal Information Security Management Act. According to the Customs and Border Protection website, the personal information you submit through the system “remains active for the period that ESTA is valid, which is generally two years or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever comes first.” After that, the Department of Homeland Security maintains the information for an additional year, then archives it for 12 years to permit retrieval if necessary. 

Who can I call if I need help applying for ESTA? 

You can call the CBP Info Center at (202) 325-8000 or 1-877-227-5511. However, the CBP Info Center will only be able to answer general questions regarding ESTA. Suppose you need to know why an ESTA application has been denied or have specific questions regarding your ESTA application. In that case, you must file a request with the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.