ESTA Versus a Visa

Is an ESTA the same as a visa?

No, an ESTA is not a visa. An ESTA is different from a visa in various aspects. An Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), for example, allows individuals to travel to the United States without necessarily requesting the traditional non-immigrant visitor visa. However, individuals traveling with valid visas do not have to apply for an ESTA as a visa will serve the purpose for which it was issued. What this means is that an ESTA is not legally sufficient to serve as a visa in the United States. Travelers will need a visa where the United States law demands so.

When should I get a visa to travel to the United States?

You will be required to obtain a visa to travel to the United States;

  • If you are traveling for any other purpose other than business and short-term visits.
  • If your travel visit is intended to exceed 90 days.
  • If you intend to travel to the United States via a non-signatory air carrier. This refers to an air carrier that uses an airport for which it is not a signatory.
  • If you know that the grounds of inadmissibility as stipulated in the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 212 (a) apply to your case. In this case, you will need to apply for a non-immigrant visa for your travel to the US.

Under what circumstances should I apply for a visa instead of an ESTA?

  • If your entry into the USA is via an air carrier that is not a VWP signatory
  • If you plan to extend your stay beyond 90 days
  • You should apply for a nonimmigrant visa before traveling to the USA if you believe any grounds of inadmissibility of the Immigration and Nationality Act § 212(a) apply to you
  • If the purpose of your visit to the USA is not for business or short-term tourism.

Who is required to apply for an ESTA?

An ESTA is used to determine the eligibility of travelers to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This means that individuals traveling to the United States by sea or air and do not have a visa must be authorized for entry into the US through an ESTA application. This includes non-ticketed infants and children. Each traveler is entitled to a separate ESTA application and fee. Also, third parties are authorized to complete an ESTA application on behalf of a VWP traveler.

Visa Waiver Program

What is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

VWP, an initiative managed by the Department of Home Security, is a program that allows individuals from specified countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa. Travelers under VWP are permitted to enter the USA for pleasure, business, or any non-work agenda for a period of, at most, 90 days.

What are the disadvantages of enrolling for the Visa Waiver Program?

While VWP comes with various benefits to its participants, it is essential to consider conditions that regulate the program to weigh your options. Some of these conditions include;

  • If you are allowed to travel to the US via VWP, you may not be in a position to extend or change your non-immigrant status.
  • A violation of your admissibility terms denies you the right to appeal or review of any removal action drawn from your ESTA application. This condition is only an exception if your application is for asylum.
  • A rejected admission to the US denies the right to appeal a determination pertaining to your admissibility.

What are the participating countries for the Visa Waiver Program?

Only individuals from the 41 participating countries are eligible to apply for an ESTA via the Visa Waiver Program. The participating countries include the following;

Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom.

Must I apply for ESTA when traveling to the United States under VWP?

To enhance security in the Visa Waiver Program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was mandated to implement an ESTA. This followed an amendment of Section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Act of 2007. Basically, ESTA is an advanced security measure that enables the DHS to verify the eligibility of individuals traveling to the US under the VWP. With ESTA, the DHS can eliminate any possible threat to law enforcement or travel security posed by the program.

Using an ESTA

For how long is an ESTA valid?

An ESTA is valid for two years from the authorization date or to the expiration date of your passport, whichever will come first will invalidate your ESTA. Once you have completed your ESTA application, the authorization date of your ESTA is displayed on the Authorization Approved screen. However, if revoked, the validity of your ESTA is terminated.

It is important to obtain a printout of your ESTA after you successfully acquire approval. Although not required on arrival to the United States, it is essential for record purposes. The US immigration officers will have their own electronic copy to verify your authorization into the country.

Note that your ESTA is fit for use throughout multiple trips during the two-year validity period. This means that it is not necessary to reapply for ESTA within this period. In case your ESTA expires while in the US, you still stand a chance to travel back to your country as its expiration does not affect your departure. However, it is essential to know that even though your ESTA remains valid for 2 years, this does not give travelers a leeway to stay in the US for that long. Your stay in the US as per the VWP requirements goes for, at most, 90 days. If you have intentions to stay longer than 90 days, then you might want to consider obtaining a visa from a Consulate or U.S Embassy.

Also note that a change in your passport details, such as country of citizenship, gender, or your name, will result in the invalidation of your current ESTA. This means you will be required to apply for a new ESTA, which comes at a fee. Although DHS will not need a copy of your ESTA, it is essential to keep a copy of your application for record-keeping purposes.

Does an ESTA guarantee entry to the United States?

Approval of your ESTA application does not guarantee your entry into the United States. The application only validates your eligibility to travel to the US via the VWP program. On arriving in the United States, travelers under VWP are inspected by the Customs and Border Protection Officers. The inspection involves a review of your documents to establish whether or not you are admissible to the United States under VWP based on certain travel laws. Individuals traveling via international flights must also undergo the regular proceedings of customs and immigration processing.

Is an ESTA application necessary when I am transiting the United States en route to another country?

When you are traveling to a third country that is not the United States, you are considered to be a traveler on transit. In such cases, you are required to apply for an ESTA if your country of origin is in the list of participating parties of the Visa Waiver Program. When filling out the ESTA application form, the individual traveling to another country through the United States must declare that they are on transit. This declaration is also accompanied by an indication of your destination country.

Do I need to fill out Form I-94W if I already have an ESTA approval?

Before the implementation of the electronic system for travel authorization, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) depended on Form I-94W to monitor the movement of non-citizens in and out of the United States. However, the establishment of ESTA enabled DHS to eliminate unnecessary paperwork such as the use of I-94W to validate to admit travelers under the VWP into the US. Today, individuals who have already received an ESTA approval will not get the I-94W departure coupon attached to their passports.

Are there passport requirements for traveling with an ESTA?

Yes, there are passport requirements necessary when traveling under the Visa Waiver Program. Some of these requirements include;

  • VWP passports issued before 26th October 2005 must have machine-readable zones on the biographic pages.
  • VWP passports issued on or after 26th October 2005 must come with a digital photo.
  • VWP passports issued on or after 26th October 2006 must be electronic. This means that they must have a digital chip that contains biometric information about the owner of each passport.
  • Temporary and emergency passports from VWP countries must also be electronic, effective from 1st July 2009.

Every citizen traveling to the United States from the following VWP countries are obliged to present an electronic passport that contains a chip;

  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • South Korea
  • Estonia
  • Slovakia
  • Latvia
  • The Republic of Malta
  • Czech Republic
  • Lithuania

Citizens from the rest of VWP countries are obliged to present machine-readable passports.

Do I need to apply for ESTA if I want to drive to the United States from Mexico or Canada?

Citizens of VWP countries do not need ESTA when traveling from Mexico or Canada to the United States by land. Here are important points to consider when traveling to the US by land;

  • If you are entering the US through the land border for the first time, you will go through a manual entry process after filling out the I-94W form. This is particularly so if you do not have a valid ESTA.
  • On the other hand, you will go through a manual entry process at the US land crossing border without necessarily filling out an I-94W form. This applies if you are entering the US via the land border for the first time with a valid ESTA.
  • In the event you are re-entering the US via land border, then your entry process will be facilitated without having to fill in a new I-94W form. This is applicable if you already have a valid stamp on your passport or valid I-94W.
  • Ferries traveling between Victoria, British Columbia and Vancouver, and the State of Washington are considered to be a land border port. Therefore, citizens of VWP countries entering the United States via these ferries will not require an ESTA application.

ESTA Application Form

When is the ideal time to make an ESTA application?

Although anyone can submit their ESTA applications any time prior to travel to the US, Customs and Border Protection recommends travelers to make an ESTA application as they book a travel. This should particularly be done 72 hours before traveling time.

What if a Visa Waiver Program applicant cannot be admitted?

There are regulations as to how individuals who are found to be inadmissible to the United States under VWP should be treated. For example, if you are determined to be inadmissible, your ESTA application will be denied. You are then either returned to your home country, aboard the carrier through which you traveled to the United States, or taken back to a third country where you have a round-trip ticket.

Don’t the extra ESTA questions equate it to a visa?

The answer is, no. The legal prerequisites that come with the application of a visa are quite complex, and they cannot compare with the ESTA requirements. An application for a non-immigrant travel visa, for example, will require you to attend an interview at the U.S Embassy or Consulate. You will also be required to submit specified information, such as personal biometrics and additional biographic details. These are requirements that will not be stipulated when making an ESTA application.

How long does it take to complete the ESTA application process?

To complete the application process of an ESTA, you will spend an average span of 20 minutes. However, if you have all the necessary documents at hand, including a credit card and passport, you can spend as little as 10 minutes. It is also important to know that the processing times of your ESTA may be influenced by various factors, including technical issues linked to the CBP systems. Other issues, such as payment processing and website problems, may also affect the ESTA processing time.

Is there a specific software needed to submit an ESTA application?

As far as computer configurations in the submission of an ESTA application are concerned, here are the specified thresholds necessary;

  • An internet browser. Most of the major browsers are supported for the submission of ESTA applications.
  • Such browsers should support 128-bit encryption.
  • A reliable browser should accept cookies, should be up to date, and JavaScript enabled.

When should I renew my ESTA?

Upon the expiration of your ESTA, it would be essential to have it renewed. However, certain circumstances demand that you renew your ESTA compulsorily. Here are some of these mandatory cases;

  • Renewal or the acquisition of a new passport. An ESTA is only valid under a single passport. If you obtain a new passport, then you should also apply for the renewal of your ESTA.
  • Passport changes. If there are changes made on your passport, then the renewal of your ESTA application is necessary. These include changes made in your name, gender, and residence or country of citizenship.
  • A change in the underlying circumstances of your responses to the ESTA application’s ‘YES/NO’ questions.

What data can I modify in my ESTA application?

Once you have completed and submitted your ESTA application, you are not allowed to make changes to your passport issuing country and passport number. However, you can modify information on either of the following areas;

  • Telephone Number
  • Email Address
  • Your United States Address
  • Carrier Information
  • City Where You are Boarding

What should I do if my passport has expired?

Your passport is the identification document that validates your movement or stay in the United States as a foreigner. You must, therefore, ensure that your passport is valid for the period you intend to stay in the US. An ESTA, on the other hand, is the travel permit that determines your admissibility into the US, and your ESTA is linked to your passport. This means that an expiration in your passport results in the expiry of your ESTA permit. It is, therefore, essential to renew your ESTA once you renew your passport.

Can I apply for an ESTA without having confirmed travel plans?

The short answer is yes, you can. However, while you aren’t required to have any specific travel plans, you do need to have a point of contact in the United States. And, while it’s not mandatory to have your travel plans set in stone, it is suggested that you have the address where you’ll be staying in the United States when you complete the application. If you’ll be staying in multiple locations, only the first address is necessary. If you don’t have the complete address, the name of the hotel or location you’ll be visiting will suffice. If you are in transit, answer “yes” when you’re asked, “is your travel to the U.S. occurring in transit to another country,” question in the Travel Information section.

How do I correct a mistake on my application?

Before submitting your application, you’ll be given an opportunity to check and update all of the information you’ve entered. After submission and without making a payment, you can change and update all data fields except Passport Number, Country of Citizenship and Issuing Country. You may be able to edit select fields on an existing ESTA application. However, if you have made a mistake on answering any of the eligibility questions then you will need to submit a new ESTA application.

Will by ESTA be denied if I leave a mandatory field blank?

You must complete all mandatory fields. Manual adjudication may be required if the wrong data is entered or data is missing and this can result in a delay in the response from the CBP.

Why do I need my employer information?

Pursuant to section 214b of the Immigration and Nationality Act, visitors to the United States must prove that they are not intending immigrants and must qualify for visitor or non-immigration status. Employment information helps demonstrate eligibility for meeting this legal requirement.

Why is it necessary to expand the amount of ESTA information being collected from VWP travelers?

Prior to the events of 9/11, the focus of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was a program that oversaw and facilitated travel while looking for and safeguarding against threats of economic migration. Since then, it has been and is focused on security standards to prevent the exploitation of the program by terrorists and other criminals.

In 2007, the Secure Travel and Counter-terrorism Partnership Act of 2007 (part of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, also known as the “9/11 Act”) (Pub. L. No. 110-53) was entered into legislation.

Under this law, which is aimed at improving the screening of individuals traveling from VWP countries, all VWP travelers are required to complete an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to traveling to the USA.

DHS must remain vigilant and flexible and continuously update and change to keep up with hazards, risks, and threats. In addition, DHS hasn’t upgraded the system in more than 6 years even though the criminal and terrorist threats have continued to evolve during that time. DHS feels that the data fields that have been added to the ESTA application will increase the effective screening of and therefore, the identification of travelers into the United States who might pose a security risk to the country.

I am traveling on a passport showing an “X” sex marker. How do I complete the ESTA?

ESTA does not currently use an “X” sex marker as a choice on the application. Travelers should choose the gender option they are most comfortable with. ESTA applications cannot be denied solely on the gender chosen on the application.

My name contains letters that are not in the American English alphabet. How should I spell my name on the ESTA application?

European languages have some unique letters not in American language. You should use substitutions as shown below where appropriate. The universal spelling of your name can also be seen in the machine readable section of your passport.

  • ß,ß = ss
  • æ = a e
  • ö = oe
  • ü = ue
  • ë = e
  • ä = ae
  • Å = aa
  • ø = oe
  • ñ = n
  • ? = i j

ESTA Processing

How long does the approval of an ESTA application take?

Since ESTA applications are processed and completed online, most of these applications are approved within the first minute of submission. However, the approval of some applications may be delayed by up to about 72 hours. Once your ESTA application has been approved, an approval notification will be sent to your email or web browser. This notification contains such details as ESTA expiration date, authorization number, and any information used when submitting the application.

How many days will my partially completed individual application be retained?

Your application will be deleted if it’s not completed and submitted within 7 days.

ESTA Payment

What are the fees for submitting an ESTA Application?

In reference to the Travel Promotion Act 2009, the ESTA application fee is split into two types of processing fees.

  • Processing Fee. The United States Department of Homeland Security charges a processing fee per application.
  • Authorization Fee. An additional amount is to paid upon approval of an ESTA application.

How can I complete payment for my ESTA application(s)?

You can make a payment for the ESTA application and authorization fees using a credit or debit card. The ESTA currently accepts American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Diners Club International, and JCB. Your application can only be processed if your application is complete with all required fields, and if your payment has been successfully authorized.

In the pay-by- card section of the form fields, the details are required to be filled in alpha-numeric characters. The details include:

  • Debit or credit card number
  • Card expiry date
  • Card Security Code (CSC)

How do I know that my payment Is successful?

If you are making your payment via debit or credit card, the system will display a message if your payment is successful. If you receive an error during the payment process, a descriptive error will be displayed on screen telling you what you should do to remediate the issue.

In all payment scenarios, you will receive a confirmation notification to the email address you provided on the payment form.

Is it possible to pay for my ESTA application later?

This is a frequently asked question addressed in two parts: Single Application Payment and Multiple application Payment. The answer is yes, and you can pay for your application later but under the following circumstances:

Single Application Payment: It is possible to pay for a single application in the first seven days of application submission. After the seven days have elapsed, you cannot access the application. Once the seven days are over, and you have not made the fee payment, you will be required to restart the application process as the previous applications will have expired.

Multiple Application Payment: When making applications for two or more travelers, the group of applicants should have their applications paid for within seven days of the form submissions of that group. After the seven-day period has expired, you will not be able to use the group ID as the applications would have expired. The group contact will need to submit new ESTA applications for the previous applications that were not processed due to not being paid.

How is safe my card information?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization does not retain records of debit or credit card information after processing payment transactions. The system follows the rules and regulations of the global Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS).

Can a single payment be used for submitting multiple applications?

The ESTA is designed to allow a single payment for groups consisting of more than two applications. Travelers completing a group application do not need to travel together to apply as a group of applicants. The ESTA allows you to submit applications of up to fifty persons using one payment method.

Will I receive a refund if I cancel?

An ESTA cannot be canceled after submission. However, if your ESTA is denied, you will only be required to pay the Processing Fee. If your application is approved, you will be liable to pay the Authorization Fee in addition to the Processing Fee.

Can I file a dispute with my card company if I want all the money back?

If a dispute is filed with your card company and you have received an approved authorization, your ESTA will likely be revoked. Filing a dispute regarding your ESTA charge may also cause issues in the future if applying for ESTA for a subsequent visit to the United States.

What can I do if I have been charged more than the government fee by a third-party?

You will likely pay additional fees if you submitted your ESTA application through a third-party. Such sites charge an extra fee for submitting the application on your behalf. If you have used a third party to apply for ESTA, CBP recommends you check the legitimacy of your ESTA on the official U.S Department of Homeland Security site using the application number provided by the third-party. Customs Border Protection department cannot refund the amount paid in excess of government fees to a third-party website.