Before we look at the documents required to apply for an ESTA, let us first cover a few basic points, such as what an ESTA is and who qualifies to apply for one. If you are in a hurry, you can jump straight to the section entitled “What documents do I need to apply for an ESTA?” below.
What is ESTA?
The term ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) refers to an electronic program that is used to determine who qualifies to visit the U.S. without the need to apply for a visa.
Having an approved ESTA is the primary requirement of the VWP (Visa Waiver Program). Individuals who are not in possession of an approved ESTA will not be allowed to enter the U.S. unless they successfully apply for a visa. The system was introduced in 2009 by the Department of Homeland Security to make it easier for low-risk travelers to enter the U.S. and more difficult for those who might pose a security risk.
Someone with an approved ESTA has the right to remain in the United States for a maximum period of 90 days. An ESTA cannot be extended, and exceeding the 90-day limit is an offense. This differs from a visa, which allows you to remain in the U.S. for 6 months at a time, and which can be extended.
An ESTA is not the same as a visa. With a few minor exceptions, it only allows the holder to use it for the purposes of business travel and tourism. Anyone who needs to visit the U.S. for a different reason should apply for a visa.
Can anyone from anywhere in the world apply for an ESTA?
The short answer is no. Only travelers from those countries that belong to the Visa Waiver Program are allowed to apply for an ESTA. The list currently includes:
Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, 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.
Please note: Countries might be removed from or added to the Visa Waiver Program list whenever the United States government chooses to do so.
Under the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”, the United States began implementing certain changes to the VWP (Visa Waiver Program). Since 2016 certain categories of travelers no longer qualify to visit the U.S. under this program. These changes affected the following types of travelers:
- Nationals of one of the VWP nations who have visited any of the following countries since March 2011: Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, or Yemen. Readers should note that exceptions apply in the case of military staff and diplomats.
- Nationals of one of the VWP nations who hold dual citizenship of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Sudan do not qualify for the ESTA program.
- From August 2019, travelers who have been to North Korea after March 2011 also no longer qualify for ESTA.
- From January 1, 2021 (the date on which Cuba was added to the list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, any foreign traveler who visited that country after 2021 does not qualify for an ESTA but has to apply for a visa instead. Those who visited Cuba before 2021 can still apply for an ESTA.
All foreign travelers are advised to confirm their ESTA status before their departure to the United States.
Other requirements related to ESTA
Even if your country is part of the VWP and the exceptions mentioned above do not apply to you, there are still a couple of other requirements you have to meet.
- You should have an e-passport, i.e., a biometric one that is fitted with an electronic chip that contains all your biometric information. This passport should not expire before 6 months after you will be leaving the U.S.
- Your approved ESTA should still be valid when you enter the United States. You cannot renew an ESTA while you are in that country, and you can’t stay for longer than 90 days.
- You should have a valid return ticket. If you are entering the U.S. by plane or ship, you should also be able to show a return ticket to prove that you will be leaving the country before your ESTA expires. The United States border agents will check that you have such a ticket.
- If you are arriving in the United States by land, you are required to show a form I-94W.
- The purpose of your trip to the U.S. must be either business or tourism (for minor exceptions, see below). Business travel can include meeting business associates or potential clients. Tourism travel covers activities such as sightseeing and visiting local family members or friends.
- Exceptions to the above rule include if you are attending a professional event like, for example, a business convention. An ESTA also allows you to attend social events e.g., music competitions or amateur sports events, or to attend a short course for recreational purposes, e.g., an academic course that only gains points.
What are the factors that could make someone ineligible for an ESTA?
Any of the reasons below might disqualify you from getting an ESTA:
- You have in the past been deported from or refused entry into the United States
- You have a criminal record, and/or you have been arrested in the past
- During a previous visit to the U.S., you overstayed your visa limit
- You suffer from a serious contagious disease
- You have dual nationality, and one of the countries is Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, or Syria.
Completing the ESTA application form
The process starts with you visiting the CBP website and finding the ESTA application section. You can either apply only for yourself or for yourself and a group of family members or friends. You will be asked to enter your personal and passport information, including the following:
- First and last name
- Information about your parents
- Your citizenship details
- Your contact information such as your email address
- Information about your employer
The automated system will then cross-check the info you provided with several legal databases to make sure that you are not a security risk.
What documents do I need to apply for an ESTA?
The documents you need to have ready when applying for an ESTA are:
- An e-passport that will remain valid for 6 months after your planned departure from the United States
- An acceptable payment method, for example, PayPal, Discover, American Express, MasterCard, or Visa)
How long will it take for my ESTA application to be processed?
In the majority of cases, if the system does not pick up any possible security threats and you do not have a criminal record, you should get a reply within a few minutes, but seldom more than 72 hours – unless there is a problem.
What can I do if my ESTA application is unsuccessful?
If you get an email saying that your ESTA application was not successful, you might still be successful with a visa application. In that case, you will have to attend a personal interview at the American consulate or embassy in your country and provide all the documentation that is requested. Exactly what that will be could depend on why your ESTA application was not successful in the first place.