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Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) Application Explained

ESTA application logo (Electronic System for Travel Authorization)

All international travelers who wish to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program must apply for authorization. The visa requirement is waived, but the visitor must obtain authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a U.S.-bound air or sea carrier. We’ll explain everything you need to know about the ESTA application.

ESTA is a web-based system operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to determine eligibility to travel under the VWP to the United States for tourism or business.

Travelers must receive authorization in order to board an airline or sea carrier. Therefore, U.S. visitor should apply for the ESTA no less than 72 hours before the trip. However, CBP recommends more advanced planning. Travelers can apply as soon as they begin preparing travel plans or prior to purchasing airline tickets.

ESTA approval authorizes a traveler to board a carrier for travel to the United States under the VWP. Private carriers must be a signatory visa waiver program carrier.

Although the VWP provides visa-free travel, some level of screening is still required. ESTA adds a layer of security that allows the U.S. government to determine, in advance of travel, whether you are eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program and whether such travel poses a law enforcement or security risk.

To obtain an ESTA, you will need to be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program and have:

  • Valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program country
  • Valid credit card to pay the U.S. $14 per application
  • Your personal background information (details below)

The good news is that an Electronic System for Travel Authorization application is simple. It’s a straight-forward process that most people can complete in less than half an hour.

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ESTA Application Cost

Currently, the cost to apply for ESTA is $14. Each traveler must submit an ESTA application; each applicant must pay this fee. The ESTA application website accepts all major payment methods including MasterCard, VISA, American Express, Discover (JCB or Diners Club only), and PayPal.

The ESTA fee is actually comprised of two parts:

  • Processing charge — All applicants requesting an electronic travel authorization are charged for the processing of the application. The fee is U.S. $4.00.
  • Authorization charge — If your application is approved and you receive authorization to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, an additional U.S. $10.00 will be added to your payment method.

Therefore, CBP will only charge you for the processing of your ESTA application if your electronic travel authorization is denied.

ESTA Validity

Approved ESTA applications are valid for a period of two years, or until the passport expires, whichever comes first. You may make multiple trips to the United States without having to re-apply for another ESTA. When traveling to the U.S. with the approved ESTA, you may only stay for up to 90 days at a time. Although you may re-use the same ESTA, there should be a reasonable amount of time between visits so that the CBP officer does not conclude that you are trying to live in the U.S. There is no set requirement for how long you must wait between visits.

In most cases, your ESTA will be valid for two years. You must obtain a new ESTA if you:

  • Receive a new passport, including an emergency or temporary passport;
  • Modify your name (first and/or last name);
  • Change your gender;
  • Change your country of citizenship; or
  • Need to change your responses to any of the “Yes” or “No” questions on the ESTA application.

Information Needed for ESTA Application

Before starting the ESTA application, let’s make sure you have everything necessary to complete the application quickly. As an applicant, you will need:

  • Valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program country
  • Valid email address
  • Home address and phone number
  • Emergency point of contact phone and email
  • Aliases or other names you’ve previously used
  • National ID or Personal ID number (if applicable)
  • Global Entry ID number (if applicable)
  • Employer address and phone number (if applicable)
  • U.S. point of contact name, address, and phone (if applicable)

Admissibility Determined by CBP Officers

CBP officers will inspect all individuals seeking entry into the United States at ports of entry (POEs). They will also determine their admissibility. The mission of the CBP inspections program is to control and guard the boundaries and borders of the United States against the illegal entry of visitors.

Under the authority of U.S. law, a CBP officer may question, under oath, any person coming into the United States to determine his or her admissibility. In addition, an officer has authority to search without warrant the person and effects of any person seeking admission, when there is reason to believe that grounds of exclusion exist which would be disclosed by such search.

If you have any past immigration violations in the U.S. or criminal offenses, consider a consultation with a lawyer before applying for ESTA.