ESTA is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It is required by the United States government for travelers from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries who are participating in the VWP. The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated the ESTA requirement.
ESTA uses an automated system to determine whether travelers are eligible to visit the U.S. under the VWP. The ESTA program, however, does not decide whether a visitor will be allowed into the U.S. That is decided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the time when the visitor arrives in the United States.
You may submit an ESTA application (which asks for information about you, and includes questions regarding things which may affect your eligibility) at any time before you travel to the U.S. You may even be able to obtain an ESTA at the airport from which you are departing. As a general rule, however, it is best to apply at an early stage in your travel preparations, and before you purchase tickets for your flight to the U.S.
It is important to obtain an ESTA. If you do not have one, you may not be allowed to check in; this rule applies to infants as well as adults.
The requirement for an ESTA applies only to arrival by air, or on a cruise ship; the air or sea carrier must be approved. If you are traveling to the United States from Mexico or Canada by land, you do not need an ESTA. You also do not need an ESTA if you travel to the state of Washington from Victoria or Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada by ferry.
The VWP allows you to visit the United States for up to 90 days. If you travel to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean islands, or Bermuda from the U.S., the time spent in those countries will be included in the 90-day period.
The United States Secretary of Homeland Security and the U.S. Secretary of State together determine which countries are included in the VWP. You must be a citizen of one of these program countries in order to be eligible for a visa Waiver. If you are not a citizen of any VWP country, but are a permanent resident of one, you will not qualify.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (Title 8 U.S.C. § 1187) sets out the basic requirements for a country to qualify for the VWP. In particular, Section 217 (c)(2)(A) specifies that the refusal rate for visas for non-immigrant visitors must be 3% or less. Factors such as compliance with U.S. immigration law and a high level of passport security are also important.
In January of 2016, ESTAs were revoked for dual citizens of the following countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Dual citizens of these countries must apply at a U.S. mission for a regular tourist visa in order to visit the United States.
If you have an ESTA, and at the time when you arrive in the U.S., the CPB determines that you had traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, or Yemen on or after March 1st, 2011, you will not be allowed to enter the country unless you are qualified for a Waiver. Your ESTA, however, will not be revoked.
Waivers of this type may be granted to travelers who visited one of the countries listed on official duty on behalf of international or regional organizations, humanitarian non-governmental organizations, or sub-national governments. Such waivers may also be granted to journalists who visited one of the listed countries in order to cover a story.
These waivers, however, are handled on a case-by-case basis, and are at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, who may choose to issue such a Waiver based on U.S national security or law enforcement interests.
According to U.S. government recommendations, it is best to submit an online request for authorization at least 72 hours (three days) before the date that you travel to the U.S. Most applications are approved very quickly (within a minute); the 72-hour period is a recommendation only, and not a requirement.
You should be aware, however, that if you are not eligible for an ESTA, you will need to go through the much longer process of applying for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate, and possibly interviewing with a U.S. Consular officer. This may, according to some observers, impose some delays on last-minute travel to the U.S. on business, so you should plan accordingly.
An ESTA travel authorization is valid for as long as two years. You must apply for a new ESTA, however, any time that you change your name, gender, or the country of which you are a citizen, or if there is a change to any of your answers to the eligibility questions on the ESTA application, or when you obtain a new passport.
ESTA allows you to stay in the U.S. and the surrounding countries for up to 90 days, with no extensions. To stay for a longer period of time, you should apply for a visa.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers make the final decision about whether you will be allowed to enter the United States. They are able to deny or cancel your ESTA at any time during your visit, so possession of an ESSTA is not a guarantee of admission to the U.S.
The VWP, or Visa Waiver Program, is a U.S. government travel authorization program which applies to citizens of specified countries. It allows visitors from those countries to come to the United States without a visa for as long as 90 days for business or tourism. Visitors under the VWP can travel to all fifty states, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. There is limited travel to other U.S. territories under the VWP.
Countries selected for the VWP have developed economies and high incomes, with high Human Development Index ratings. When a country is nominated for the VWP, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security begins to investigate its policies regarding immigration and homeland (internal) security. The nomination process ends with acceptance or rejection, but it may continue for an indefinite period of time.
Nomination may be preceded by "roadmap" status. Roadmap countries are typically in discussion with the U.S. about admission to the VWP. Such roadmap discussions have been ongoing since 2005. They originally involved 19 countries. Nine of these countries (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey) are still involved in such discussions. The other 10 are now part of the VWP.
Eligibility may be affected by a variety of circumstances, and a country may be removed from the VWP at any time. The most common reason for the loss of eligibility is a change of circumstances which, in the opinion of the U.S. government, increases the probability that the citizens of the country affected will overstay their visit, work illegally, or otherwise violate VWP restrictions.
This means that economic and political instability can have an indirect effect on eligibility (although not considered to be direct factors). Citizens of nations undergoing such instability could, from the U.S. point of view, have greater reason to violate the terms or their visa or work in the U.S. without a permit than would citizens of countries which are politically and economically stable and developed. Typically, a U.S. consul will take such factors into consideration when considering a visa application.
Argentina (2002) and Uruguay (2003) both lost their VWP eligibility due to economic instability resulting from a financial crisis; the U.S. was concerned that citizens of either country could have emigrated in large numbers and overstayed their visits.Other circumstances may affect VWP eligibility, as well, including treatment of U.S. citizens traveling to the countries in question. This appears to be the reason why Israel has not been included in the VWP; it has been known to place Palestinian-American visitors under scrutiny so strict that it violates the requirement for mutuality.
The Visa Waiver program began with an act of Congress passed in 1986. it's purpose was to make short-term business and tourist visits to the U.S. easier, and to let the State Department concentrate on higher risks. The first VWP country was the UK (July, 1988); the second was Japan (December 16, 1988). The Netherlands, France, West Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland all followed in October of 1989.
1991 saw Spain, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino added tot he program. New Zealand was the first country form Oceania to join, also in 1991. Brunei was the second Asian country to join, in 1993.
Ireland was admitted to the VWO on April 1, 1995. Australia and Argentina (the first Latin American country, later dropped from the program in 2002) joined in 1996. Slovenia joined on September 30, 1997. Singapore, Portugal, and Uruguay (dropped in 2003) joined on August 9, 1999.
The George W. Bush administration instituted more restrictive requirements after the September 11 attacks. These included a law requiring VWP visitors arriving in the U.S. to present a machine-readable passport beginning on October 1, 2003. Several VWP countries were still issuing passports which did not meet the machine-readable requirement, however; over 33% of Spanish and French travelers still held passports which were not machine-readable. As a result, the requirement for machine-readability was delayed until October 26, 2004. This delay, however, did not apply to Belgium, because the U.S. had serious doubts regarding the integrity and security of passports from that country.
The U.S. had also previously set October 26, 2004 as the date on which the requirement that all passports for VWP visitors must be biometric would begin. When the machine-readability requirement was reset for that date, however, the U.S. rescheduled the biometric requirement to begin on October 26, 2005. This date was later moved to October 26, 2006, because the EU believed that several countries would not be able to comply by the 2005 date.
The Biometric requirement did finally go into effect on October 26, 2006; all VWP passports issued on that date or subsequently must be biometric. At that time however, Brunei, Liechtenstein, and Andorra were still not issuing biometric passports.
The ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) was unveiled in November of 2006. It was based on Australia's long-standing Electronic Travel Authority program, and was intended to allow VWP visitors to provide travel information to the U.S. government in advance of their visit. The U.S. would then provide them with electronic authorization to visit the country (without, however, a guarantee of admission).
Since the program originated in Australia, it is worthwhile to take a look at the Australian implementation of the Electronic Travel Authority system. The Australian ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) is an electronic visa stored on the DIAC (Department of Immigration and Citizenship) computer system. All travelers to Australia are required to apply for a visa (whether an ETA or otherwise), with the exception of New Zealanders, who are automatically granted a visa when they arrive in Australia, under the terms of the Trans-Tasman Travel arrangement. With the single exception of NZ citizens, the ETA has effectively replaced visa-free visits to Australia. Although visitors must purchase an ETA (online from the DIAC, or from an authorized airline or travel agency), and Australia is the only nation requiring such a purchase for visiting U.S. citizens, the process is sufficiently informal so that the U.S. accepts it as an arrangement that meets the standard (i.e., ninety days of visa-free travel for business or tourism) reciprocal requirement. Many European travelers (including citizens of EU countries) use the very similar (but free) eVisitor program for electronic travel authorization. Overall, there is a strong resemblance between the eVisitor system and the U.S. VWP requirement for travelers to apply for an ESTA.
A traveler must meet the following requirements to qualify for the Visa Waiver Program:
As of June 3, 2008, if you are traveling to the U.S. under the VWP, you must apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) before you depart for the U.S. The application process is online, and it is suggested, although not required, that you apply three days (72 hours) before departure for the U.S. An ESTA is valid for two years from the date that it is issued. The ESTA program is based on the Electronic Travel Authority system used in Australia.
The purpose of this requirement is to allow VWP travelers to be checked against lists and databases of terrorist suspects and no-fly individuals; it is primarily a security measure. ESTA authorization is required for VWP travelers, but in itself, it is not a guarantee that you will be admitted to the U.S. That decision rests with CBP officers at the point where you enter the United States.
Under most circumstances, the U.S. requires that a traveler's passport must be valid for six months past the date when the traveler leaves the U.S. There are, however, agreements between the United States and several countries under which this requirement is waived.
To travel to the U.S. under the VWP, you must:
Note that under some circumstances, some U.S. embassies and consulates advise visitors to apply for a standard tourist visa (instead of the VWP) when the visitor may still be eligible for the VWP. This may happen if you have previously been refused entry to the U.S. You may still be eligible for the VWP, but unless you have taken care of the initial problem, you may be refused gain. You may also be advised to apply for a standard tourist visa if you have been arrested or convicted of a crime, although, as described above, an exemption may apply. You are only ineligible if you do not meet the requirements specified for the VWP.
If an immigration officer does decide to refuse to let you enter the U.S. however, you will have no right of appeal unless you hold a visa, allowing you to appeal to an immigration judge.
Under the Visa Waiver Program: