Are you looking to travel to the United States as a tourist? If so, then you’re probably considering getting yourself a travel visa. This can seem like a daunting process and can intimidate even the most confident and seasoned of travelers. There is, however, a simpler way to travel to the U.S., especially if you’re not going to be staying there for more than 90 days. Simply fill in an ESTA form.
What’s ESTA and How Does It Work?
ESTA stands for electronic system for travel authorization and is an automated system that determines whether you’re authorized to travel to the U.S. under a special program known as the visa waiver program (VWP).
If you’re lucky enough to get an ESTA, you are allowed to board a plane for the U.S. that’s allowed to go to the U.S. under the VWP. These are mostly private carriers that are signatories to the visa waiver program. You can apply for ESTA at just about any time before you travel for the U.S. You are advised, however, to do it at least 72 hours before you travel to give yourself a buffer with any hiccups that might pop up along the way. Typically, however, you will get a response within mere seconds of submitting your application.
Not a Visa
Don’t mistake ESTA for a visa. If your visit to the U.S. is for a specific purpose, other than tourism or simple travel, then you need to apply for a proper visa. Additionally, if you’ve already got a visa to travel to the U.S. — there are nearly 200 different visa categories that are related to travel to the U.S. — then you don’t need an ESTA. You can use a visa instead. If you have a valid visa, then you aren’t required to apply for ESTA to travel to the U.S. Also, remember how having a valid visa doesn’t guarantee you entry into the U.S.? Well, having a valid ESTA doesn’t guarantee you entry either. But, this isn’t something you have to worry about unless you have major issues with the officials at the airport.
ESTA came into force in January 2009 and was made mandatory for all VWP applicants who didn’t otherwise have valid travel visas. As a VWP applicant, you’d be required to complete a Customs declaration (the blue one) as soon as you arrive in the U.S., regardless of whether you have your ESTA authorization or not.
It used to be the case that any VWP applicant was required to complete the I-94W card if they wanted to gain entry to the U.S. However, with the implementation of ESTA, this is no longer necessary.
Validity For USA and Abroad
So, you have an ESTA and are excited to travel to the U.S., but are wondering how long will it remain valid. As it turns out, an approved ESTA application is valid for a period of two years or until your passport expires. The maximum is two years, so it really depends on which occurs first.
With a valid ESTA, you get to travel to the U.S. multiple times within the active period without having to worry about reapplying. The big catch with your ESTA is that you’re only allowed to stay for 90 days at a time. Take note that the day you arrive is counted as day one, even if you arrived in the U.S. just a few minutes before midnight.
You should also make sure there’s a reasonable amount of time between your visits to the U.S. so the customs officers don’t think you’re trying to live in the U.S. Note, however, that the definition of “reasonable” is pretty subjective since there aren’t any requirements for how long you should take between visits.
Under What Conditions Should You Apply for a New ESTA?
If your ESTA is approved, but your passport will be expiring in less than two years, then your ESTA will only be valid until the passport expires. There are other circumstances under which you’re eligible to apply for a new ESTA.
- You have a new passport.
- You’ve changed your name in some manner.
- You’ve changed your gender. Something to note here is that ESTA currently doesn’t have the option of “gender X” on the list of options. You’re advised to choose whatever gender you feel most comfortable with on the list. Don’t worry, however, you certainly won’t be disqualified on the basis of the gender you chose on your ESTA application.
- You change your country of citizenship.
- Your circumstances and status change. You’ll have to reapply for your ESTA if you’re convicted for a crime or some other kind of brush with the law. You’ll also have to reapply for your ESTA if you’ve contracted a contagious disease. In some of these cases, you might have to go ahead and apply for a proper visa under the relevant category to travel to the U.S. In your reapplication, you must show exactly how your circumstances have changed. Failure to do this could mean you will be denied entry into the U.S. upon arrival.
To start with, it’s advisable that you apply for ESTA as soon as you know you’re going to be traveling to the U.S. Meanwhile, if you’re in the U.S. already and your ESTA expires, you will still be allowed to depart from the country without a hassle. You will, however, have to apply again the next time you want to travel to the U.S.
It will cost you a fee to apply for ESTA. There’s a processing charge, which is charged to all applicants for the processing of the application that, as of this writing, is $4. Additionally, there is an authorization charge. This charge comes when your application is approved, and you are required to pay $10. You don’t have to pay the authorization charge, however, if your ESTA application is rejected.