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The ESTA travel authorisation: all you need to know

Compared to other countries around the world, the USA has one of the strictest immigration policies there is. Any person wanting to travel to the USA would therefore do well to read up on the visa rules.

As a standard, any non-US nationals need a visa to travel to the USA. The only exception to this is if you possess a US passport. However, there are a number of alternatives to the visa. By far the most popular one is the so-called ESTA. Travellers from countries like the United Kingdom can make use of an ESTA if they want to go to the USA.

ESTA: Digital Travel Permit

ESTA is an abbreviation and stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation. In a way, it is similar to the visa in that it grants the holder permission to enter the country. But in practice, the ESTA has several crucial differences compared to the visa. For one, it is entirely digital. Everything from applying to actually receiving it happens online. No appointments need to be made at the embassy and you also don’t need to get your passport stamped.

Once you’ve received your ESTA, applying for a visa is no longer necessary. This is because the ESTA system falls under the larger Visa Waiver Program, a program which the United States put in place to make it so citizens from allied countries can travel to the USA without a visa. There are some 38 countries that are part of this program, including the UK. However, not everyone from these countries automatically qualifies for an ESTA. In certain cases, the specific requirements are not met and a visa application needs to be submitted.

ESTA requirements

There are a number of strict requirements travellers on an ESTA need to keep in mind. Breaking any of these rules will lead to an ESTA being declared invalid, making it so you have no choice but to apply for a visa. For instance, the traveller must be able to prove that they plan to leave the USA. This is generally done by providing a return flight ticket. The ESTA is valid for 90 days, meaning this is the maximum length of time you can stay in the USA. If you want to stay any longer, a new ESTA needs to be applied for.

An ESTA cannot be used to work or study in the USA. To do either of these things, a specific work or study visa is required. Paid labour can still be performed on an ESTA, but only if the employer paying the salary is located outside of the USA. An ESTA is also required for trips to Alaska, Guam, Hawaii or the American Virgin Islands.

Failure to comply with the ESTA requirements can lead to deportation and being banned from entering the USA in the future.

ESTA USA application

The benefit of an ESTA compared to a visa is that it can be applied for at any point, including during the weekends or holidays. Applying takes about five minutes and the cost of an application is £29.95 per person. A special urgent application can also be submitted. In these cases, the ESTA is generally approved within the hour. The confirmation of the ESTA does not need to be printed. This makes it so applying is possible even at the airport as you are about to leave.

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