ESTA: Visa-Free Travel to the USA


If you are planning to travel to the US for a short-term visit, you may not have to apply for a visa.

Under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), eligible travellers can come to the US for a stay of up to 90 days for tourism or certain business-related activities without a visa. Travelling on the VWP will however require valid ESTA authorisation for each individual traveller.


What is ESTA? 

ESTA is the US Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It is an online security pre-screening process, mandatory for all VWP visitors to the US. Every individual travelling on the VWP must hold valid ESTA authorization prior to travel to the US. This includes all children.


Do I need a visa to visit the USA? 

If the following apply, you won’t need a visa to visit the US:

  • You are a national of one of the 38 countries that participate in the US Visa Waiver Program
  • Your reason for travel is business-related or for tourism
  • You intend to stay for no more than 90 days
  • Your passport has a machine-readable zone on the biographic page
  • Your passport is an electronic passport with a digital chip containing your biometric information
  • You have valid ESTA authorisation


Which are the VWP counties?

Andorra (1991)
Australia (1996)
Austria (1991)
Belgium (1991)
Brunei (1993)
Chile (2014)
Czech Republic (2008)
Denmark (1991)
Estonia (2008)
Finland (1991)
France (1989)
Germany (1989)
Greece (2010)
Hungary (2008)
Iceland (1991)
Ireland (1995)
Italy (1989)
Japan (1988)
Korea, Republic of (2008)
Latvia (2008)
Liechtenstein (1991)
Lithuania (2008)
Luxembourg (1991)
Malta (2008)
Monaco (1991)
Netherlands (1989)
New Zealand (1991)
Norway (1991)
Portugal (1999)
San Marino (1991)
Singapore (1999)
Slovakia (2008)
Slovenia (1997)
Spain (1991)
Sweden (1989)
Switzerland (1989)
Taiwan (2012)
United Kingdom (1988)


How to apply for ESTA authorisation 

The application is an online form on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. It includes a number of questions relating to your personal details, employment and work situation and travel plans.

You will also have to answer the ESTA eligibility questions. These identify grounds for refusal of your application for security reasons. Answering ‘yes’ to any of these will almost certainly result in your application being refused.


How much is ESTA authorisation?

The cost is $14 per person, usually charged to your local currency at the prevailing exchange rate.


How long does it take to get an ESTA?

Applications are processed immediately. Your authorisation document should come through straight away after submitting your form, but can take up to 24 hours.

It is recommended that you apply at least 72 hours before intending to travel. You can apply for an ESTA without having made travel plans.


Do I need to print out my ESTA? 

Your status will be checked at the US border by officials with reference to the official online records. However, it is safest to take a printed copy of your approved ESTA just in case there are issues when attempting to gain entry.


How long does ESTA last? 

ESTA is typically issued for two years from the date of your application. It will however expire sooner if your passport runs out before this two-year date. It remains valid provided your details remain unchanged. You can use the ESTA as many times as you like during this period, provided it remains valid and you are eligible for VWP travel for each trip.


Which countries are ESTA eligible? 

Citizens of the following country may be eligible for visa-free travel, provided they meet the remaining requirements, including having ESTA authorisation:

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


ESTA refused?

If your ESTA application has been denied, you should first double check the reason for the refusal.

Common issues include:

  • Answering an application question incorrectly
  • Using a passport number that was reported lost or stolen
  • Overstaying on previous US visit
  • Past criminal conviction
  • Denial of previous US visa application(s) to the US

If you are refused, you may need to seek alternative permission to allow you to travel to the US. In most cases, this will be an application for a B visa for short term tourism (B-2) or business-related activity (B-1). If your application was refused on the basis of a past criminal conviction, you may also need to apply for a waiver of inadmissibility to accompany your visa petition, which specifically addresses the nature of the offence and overcoming potential objections that would result in your visa application being denied.


Do you need advice?

Take professional advice on your circumstances to assess all options available to you. Contact us for guidance on your US visa options and application.


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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