ESTA is an automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the VWP. It screens travelers before they board their flight or ship to the United States to ensure that they do not pose an immigration or security risk.
Unsurprisingly, the ESTA application process is the same whether you are arriving by air or sea. You will be asked to provide your personal information, and passport details and answer some security questions. Once your application has been approved, your ESTA will be valid for up to two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.
It’s important to note at this stage that having an approved ESTA does not guarantee that you will be allowed into the United States. It remains up to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer to determine whether or not you will be allowed into the United States upon arrival.
If your country is not a member of the Visa Waiver Program, your only option is to apply for a US visa before your trip.
So who exactly has to apply for ESTA before embarking on a trip to the US?
All qualifying citizens or nationals for the Visa Waiver Program countries who intend to embark on a trip to the US for tourism or business purposes have to apply for and get an ESTA authorization before they are allowed to board an airplane or ship that is on its way to the United States.
In this context, the term ‘United States’ refers to the continental US, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Whether accompanied or not, regardless of age, children must also independently be approved for ESTA. A third party, such as a family member or a travel agent, can send in an ESTA application on behalf of such a Visa Waiver Program traveler.
Is an ESTA just another name for a type of visa?
The short answer is no, it isn’t the same. It doesn’t meet the regulatory or legal requirements that visas must adhere to under United States law. Applying for an ESTA is easier and takes less time than applying for a visa. The approval process is typically anything from a few minutes to 72 hours. The application process for a visa can take weeks or months.
If you already have a visa to enter the United States, that will be sufficient to provide you entry into the United States. There is no need to apply for an ESTA as well.
What is the main purpose of an ESTA? Is it security related?
Yes. An ESTA makes it possible for the Department of Homeland Security to better assess whether an individual is eligible to enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program and whether or not he or she might pose a security or law enforcement risk.
An ESTA, therefore, serves to counterbalance certain risks that are part and parcel of visa-free travel. It does this by introducing an advanced level of scrutiny that makes it possible for the frontline staff at DHS to concentrate even better on the relatively small number of people out there who could potentially become a danger to the US.
If I am on board a cruise ship that will dock at a US port, will I be allowed to go for day trips if I do not have an ESTA?
If you are a citizen of a country that is a member of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you will need to have an approved ESTA to enter the United States, even if you are only visiting for a day trip.
However, if you are a citizen of a country that is not a member of the VWP, you may be able to enter the United States without an ESTA if you have a valid U.S. visa or if you qualify for a visa waiver for other reasons.
It’s important to note that even if you can enter the United States without an ESTA, you may still need to go through immigration and customs procedures upon arrival and departure from the United States, and you may need to present certain documents, such as your passport and ship itinerary. Additionally, the specific requirements for entry may vary depending on the circumstances of your trip and the discretion of U.S. immigration officials.
Are there any other countries that have something similar to the US ESTA?
Several countries have implemented or are in the process of implementing a system similar to the U.S. ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to screen visa-exempt foreign visitors for security risks before their arrival. Some of these countries include:
Canada: The Canadian government introduced its Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) system in 2016 for visa-exempt foreign nationals traveling to Canada by air.
Australia: Australia implemented the Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) in 1996, which is required for visa-exempt foreign visitors traveling to Australia for tourism or business purposes.
New Zealand: The New Zealand government introduced the Electronic Travel Authority (NZeTA) in 2019 for visa-exempt foreign visitors traveling to New Zealand by air.
Japan: Japan plans to introduce a new Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) system in 2020, which will be required for visa-exempt foreign visitors traveling to Japan for short-term stays.
The European Union: The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) is expected to be implemented in 2024 for visa-exempt foreign visitors traveling to the Schengen Area, which includes most European countries.
The United Kingdom: The UK’s ESTA version is the EVW or Electronic Visa Waiver. It allows a qualified applicant to visit that country for a maximum of 6 months for business, tourism, medical treatment, or study.
It’s important to note that each of these systems operates independently, and travelers must apply for each authorization separately if they plan to visit multiple countries with similar systems.
Does my passport have to conform to certain criteria before I am allowed to enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program?
Yes, your passport must meet certain criteria for you to be allowed to enter the United States under the VWP.
First, the passport must be an electronic passport (e-passport) that contains a chip with biometric information. E-passports must meet certain global standards for storing and securing data related to the passport holder.
Many countries have started issuing e-passports, so you should check with your government to see if your passport meets this requirement.
Your passport must also be machine-readable. This means that it should have a strip at the bottom of the personal data page that a machine can read.
Finally, your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your planned stay in the United States. If it expires within six months of your arrival in the U.S., you should renew it before you embark on your trip. Otherwise, your ESTA application might be rejected, forcing you to face unnecessary delays.