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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, that specifically addresses the nature of the offence and overcoming potential objections that would result in your visa application being denied.

Taking professional advice on your circumstances to assess all options available to you and make a robust and comprehensive application to the US consular for processing.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.

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