All passengers traveling to the U.S. by air or sea under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are required to get a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval in advance. You can not submit an ESTA application at a U.S. port of entry or at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is a web-based, free automated system made by the Department of Homeland Security to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the U.S. under the VWP. ESTA essentially collects the same information as the previous paper I-94W form.
As ESTA is required only for the citizens of VWP countries, citizens of Bermuda, Canada, the Marshall Islands, or Micronesia should not apply for it.
Is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) Mandatory?
If you have not received ESTA approval, you may be denied boarding, experience delayed processing, or be denied admission at a U.S. port of entry.
All VWP travelers arriving into the U.S. by airplane or vessel require an approved ESTA, regardless of their country of origination or port of embarkation. Travelers entering the U.S. at land border ports of entry can continue to be processed under the VWP and are not required to apply for ESTA authorization.
Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) Governing Law
ESTA is required pursuant to Section 217 of the INA, as amended by Section 711 of the “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007”. It required DHS to develop and implement an automated system to determine, in advance of travel, the eligibility of visitors to travel the U.S. under the VWP and whether such travel poses a law enforcement or security risk. ESTA counterbalances vulnerabilities inherent in visa-free travel by establishing an additional layer of advance scrutiny that enables DHS frontline personnel to focus even more on the small population of potentially dangerous travelers.
ESTA Similarity to Other Programs
Australia has a program called the Electronic Travel Authority, similar to ESTA of the U.S. Travelers trying to visit Australia may submit an application electronically through the Electronic Travel Authority web site. However, an ESTA is not a visa, unlike Australia’s program.
Unless revoked, an ESTA authorization is generally valid for up to two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. It is also valid for multiple entries into the U.S.
However, this does not mean that you can stay in the U.S. for two years. You can only stay in the U.S. for 90 days or less at a time.
Electronic System for Travel Authorization is Not a Visa
ESTA approval is not the same thing as a U.S. visa, as it does not meet the legal or regulatory requirements to serve in lieu of a U.S. visa when a visa is required under U.S. law. Individuals traveling on valid visas are not required to apply for an ESTA.
Not a Guarantee
ESTA approval just authorizes a traveler to board a carrier for travel to the U.S. under the VWP and is not a guarantee of admissibility to the U.S. at a port of entry. CBP officers make such determination in all cases at U.S. ports of entry or pre-clearance facilities.
Proof of ESTA Authorization
You are not required to bring a paper printout of your ESTA approval with you when traveling. DHS communicates a traveler’s ESTA status electronically to the carriers. However, you are highly recommended to take the print out anyway and bring it with you, as sometimes airlines ask for it. Moreover, it also helps to maintain a record of your ESTA application number and to have confirmation of your ESTA status.
The paper I-94W requirement has been completely eliminated, as carriers are capable of receiving and validating messages pertaining to the traveler’s ESTA status as part of the traveler’s boarding status.
Do you Need to Apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) if In Transit?
Even if you are just transiting through the United States en route to another country, you still need to apply for ESTA authorization if you are traveling under VWP. At the time of application, when you are asked for your “Address While In the United States”, you should enter the words “In Transit” and your final destination location in the address lines.
If you are a citizen of the country that participates in the VWP and also a citizen of the country that does not participate in the VWP, you must apply for ESTA authorization using the VWP country’s passport. If you are a citizen of two countries that participate in the VWP, you should apply for ESTA authorization using the passport that you would use to enter the U.S.
Help Regarding ESTA
You can contact the CBP Customer Service Center at (703) 526-4200 or (877) 227-5511 for general questions regarding ESTA.
If you need to know the reason for your ESTA application denial or specific questions regarding your ESTA application, you must file a request with the DHS Redress Program.
Military Dependents from the Visa Waiver Countries are allowed to travel “space available” on military aircraft to the U.S. and may be admitted as visitors to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.
VWP Military Dependents are required to have in their possession:
- A valid passport from their Visa Waiver Country.
- A Military Dependent Identification card issued by the U.S. Military Department of their sponsor, i.e., USMC, USAF, USN, US ARMY, US COAST GUARD.
- An approved travel authorization via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
The sponsor is not required to accompany them. The military dependent must not intend to immigrate while flying military “space available” aircraft.
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