Understanding ESTA: Visa-Free Travel to the US for Eligible Citizens

Updated on May 05, 2024 | Online US Visa

The United States of America has different categories of visas for people from various countries to apply for when they plan a visit. Some nationalities are eligible for visa waivers under a visa waiver program (VWP). At the same time, some need to appear for an interview for their U.S. visa process in person, while some are eligible to process their visa application online.

Those candidates eligible for VWP must apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Continue reading to know more about the rules of ESTA and its process.

What are the Eligible Countries?

Nationals of the following 40 countries are eligible for the visa waiver program and do not require to fill out the U.S. visa application form.

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

The ESTA-eligible travelers entering the United States must have an e-passport if their passports are issued after October 26th 2006. e-Passport contains an electronic chip that carries all the information in the passenger's passport bio-data page and a digital photograph.

Due to some changes in the U.S. visa policies, the citizens of the countries mentioned above should get their ESTA approval. The standard processing time is 72 hours, so applicants must apply at least three days before travel. It is recommended they do it early and start their travel preparations only after getting the approval. Travellers can apply for the ESTA online or through an authorized agent.

Many times, travellers forget to apply for ESTA and do it on their day of travel. Although things usually go smoothly if the traveller has everything else in order, sometimes the screening may take longer, and the applicants have to postpone their trip.

What is the Difference Between ESTA and Visa?

ESTA is an approved travel authorisation but is not considered a visa.  ESTA does not meet the lawful or regulatory requirements to serve in place of a United States visa.

ESTA holders can only use the permit for tourism, business or transit, but if they want to stay for more than 90 days, study or work, they must attain that visa category. The process is similar to other individuals where the candidate must fill the U.S. visa application form, pay the application fee and submit additional documents.

Individuals with valid visas can travel to the United States on that visa for the purpose it was issued. Individuals travelling on valid visas need not apply for ESTA.

Applicants must apply for a visa if they travel on a private aircraft or any non-VWP-approved sea or air carrier.

US Visa Online is now available to be obtained by mobile phone or tablet or PC by email, without requiring a visit to the local US Embassy. Also, US Visa Application Form is simplified to be completed online on this website in under 15 minutes.

Why is ESTA Required?

Since January 2009, the U.S. has made it mandatory for VWP-eligible travellers visiting the country for a short stay to apply for ESTA. The main reasons are security and prevention of terrorism in the country or elsewhere in the world. It enabled the government to manage and register information on travellers coming to the U.S. for short stays. These things allowed them to review in advance whether the applicant has a status to visit the U.S. without a visa or whether the individual might be a threat to the U.S. if allowed.

People need to be aware authorisation through ESTA does not guarantee entry into the country. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are the final authorities on the traveller's eligibility to enter the country. There are possibilities of a person being refused admission and deported to their country.

Documents Required for ESTA Travel Authorization Application

Applicants eligible for the ESTA visa waiver program should be ready with the necessary documents and information they may be asked for during the application process. These include

  • Valid passport:  The passport must be valid for more than six months from the day of the traveller's date of arrival in the USA. If it is invalid, renew the same before applying for the ESTA. Travellers must fill in passport information in the ESTA application to complete their U.S. visa process.
  • Other information: Sometimes, the authorities might ask for the address, telephone number, and other details for communication in the USA where the applicant will be staying. They must answer it correctly and truthfully.
  • E-mail address:  The applicants must provide a valid e-mail address for the authorities to communicate regarding their application. The ESTA approval for the USA trip will reach the e-mail within 72 hours. It is recommended to print a copy of the document while travelling.
  • Visa payment:  Along with the visa application online, the candidates should make the visa application fee through a valid debit or credit card.

Candidates Can Apply For a visa if Their ESTA Application is Rejected.

Applicants whose ESTA U.S. visa application is rejected online can still apply by filling out a new U.S. visa application form and paying the non-refundable visa processing fee. But they may not qualify to process visa application online. 

However, when the candidates reapply for a visa, they must carry several documents to confirm their reasons for visiting. Although they can reapply after three working days, it is improbable their circumstances would change on such short notice, and their U.S. visa application may again be rejected.

So, they must wait for some time, improve their position and reapply with a new U.S. visa application form and strong reasons with documents to prove why they must visit the country.

Likewise, some people rejected for a visa under section 214 B try to apply for ESTA, but they will most likely be denied permission. In most cases, they will be rejected. It is recommended they wait and improve their status.

ESTA Validity 

The ESTA travel document is valid for two years from the date of issuance and allows the applicants to enter the country several times. They can stay for a maximum of 90 days on each visit. They must leave the country and re-enter if they plan a more extended trip.

However, it is also essential the passport must be valid beyond two years, or the ESTA will expire on the day the passport expires. Applicants must reapply for a fresh ESTA after getting a new passport.

Do passengers transiting USA require ESTA approval?

Yes, all travellers making any kind of stopover in the USA, including transit passengers, must hold a valid visa or ESTA.   A valid ESTA document will enable passengers to change flights/airports while travelling to other destinations. Those not eligible for the VWP must submit a U.S. visa application for a transit visa to change aircraft at an airport, even if they do not intend to stay in the country.

Do Minors & Infants Require ESTA? 

Yes, minors and children, regardless of their age, must have separate passports and should also have the ESTA. It is their parent's/guardian’s responsibility to apply before they plan their travel.

How to Apply for the ESTA Online?

Processing the ESTA application is not a lengthy process and is simple, unlike the U.S. visa application procedure. The system is quick and should not take more than 20 minutes to complete. The applicants must follow the instructions given below:

First: Applicants can visit the ESTA website and fill up the electronic form with general information about their trip. If the applicants want their ESTA urgently, they must select the option "urgent delivery."

Second: Then, make the online payment. Make sure all the information entered is correct before making the payment. When the ESTA is approved no additional fees is charged.

Once the process is completed, you will receive a confirmation e-mail.

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Irish citizens, South Korean citizens, Japanese citizens, and Icelandic citizens can apply online for ESTA US Visa.