North America USA The Ultimate Guide to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program and ESTA

The Ultimate Guide to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program and ESTA


You have officially decided to make the trip to the U.S., but before you start booking your flight, there is one thing you must do first: apply for an ESTA. Without one you won’t be able to board the plane to the U.S. So now, you’re probably wondering what is ESTA? Am I eligible? Why do I need it? And how do I apply for it? Well in this guide, you will find everything you need to know about ESTA and how to apply so you can start planning your trip to the U.S.

What is ESTA? 

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an online system used to determine whether or not you are eligible to travel to the USA without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP allows citizens or nationals from 38 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days. However, travelers must first obtain an approved ESTA.

What is the Difference Between ESTA and a Visa? 

ESTA is not a visa.  Rather, it’s an approved travel authorization that allows you to travel to the U.S. visa-free if you are a citizen or national of the 38 countries enrolled in the VWP. If your country is not part of the VWP, or if you plan to spend more than 90 days on U.S. soil, you must apply for an appropriate visa as the ESTA will not suffice. For more information on the type of visa you may need, visit the US Department of State website

Who Can Apply for ESTA? 

You are eligible to apply for an ESTA if:

  • You plan to travel to the United States for 90 days or less for pleasure, business, or are in transit.
  • You’re arriving by plane or ship (you don’t need an ESTA if you enter the U.S. by land, however you will be required to complete the paper I-94W form at the border).
  • You are a citizen or eligible national of a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) country

How to Apply for ESTA? 

The only way to apply for ESTA is online via the official ESTA website. The application is straight-forward and takes roughly twenty minutes to complete if you have all the required information needed to apply. It’s advisable to apply before booking your flight, and no later than 72 hours before leaving for the U.S. You will be turned away at the airport check in counter if you do not have an approved ESTA.

What You’ll Need for Your ESTA Application

  • A valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program country
  • A valid credit card (MasterCard, VISA, American Express, and Discover) or PayPal to pay the application fee of $14 USD
  • Travel dates
  • Address of the place you intend to stay, as well as your U.S. point of contact 
  • Employment information (if applicable) 

How Much Does the ESTA Application Cost? 

An accepted ESTA application costs $14 USD per person, while a rejected ESTA application cost $4 USD, both of which can be paid via credit card or PayPal. These are the official prices at the time of writing, if you choose to go through a travel agency or third-party you will likely pay more. 

How Long Does the ESTA Process Take? 

Though the application process takes only about 20 minutes to complete, it can take up to 72 hours to get your application decision. You can check that status on the official ESTA website using the ESTA application number you’ll receive after you’ve completed the application. Your ESTA application status will have one of the three responses:

  1. Authorization Approved: You’re authorized to travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.
  2. Travel Not Authorized: Unfortunately you’re not authorized to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. 
  3. Authorization Pending: Your application needs a little more time before a decision can be made, however a determination is usually made within 72 hours.

What if My ESTA Application is Not Approved? 

If your application is rejected, this does not mean you’ve been denied entry into the United States, rather it means you cannot travel visa-free to the U.S. Therefore you will need to apply for a visitors visa. Unlike the ESTA, a visa is a much more complex and expensive application process which requires in person interviews at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Visa applications cannot be done online.

How Long is My ESTA Valid for? 

Once your ESTA application is approved, it is valid for two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. You can visit the U.S. as many times as you’d like with your valid ESTA so long as each trip is not more than 90 days. There is also no set requirement as to how long you must wait between visits, but you’ll want to put some distance between your visits so the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers don’t think you’re trying to live in the U.S. as they do have the right to deny you entry. 

Does an ESTA Approval Guarantee Entry to the USA? 

Your ESTA approval is proof stating that you’re eligible to travel to the U.S. visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program but is not a guarantee of entry into the USA. Your entry to the U.S. is at the discretion of CBP officers. When you land in the U.S., a CBP officer will inspect you and determine whether you are admissible or not, regardless of if you have an approved ESTA. 

Can I Renew my ESTA? 

There is no way to renew your ESTA, once your ESTA has expired or you’ve renewed your passport, you must reapply for a new ESTA via the official ESTA website

These are the basic facts about the U.S. Visa Waiver Program and ESTA, now you should be ready to complete your ESTA application and plan your visit to the U.S.!



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