The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an essential part of your application for a visa to travel to the United States for business or pleasure. Get it wrong and it can scupper your chances of visiting the country before you have even started, so it’s essential to get the application right or enlist the services of a third party and get help with your ESTA application.
The United States introduced the ESTA form in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that devastated New York. It was a bid by the US government, US Border and Customs Protection and the Department of Homeland Security to keep closer tabs on the people that crossed its borders every day. It was created as a result of the ‘Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007’.
The old system of landing cards suddenly did not look robust enough to deal with the volume of travellers entering the United States on a daily basis. The electronically supplied form allowed the US to scan arrivals, make plans to intercept people of interest and also to check thousands of people off the list of those to look into, which allowed the security services to focus their efforts on potential threats.
The only real alternative was to withdraw from the Visa Waiver Programme altogether, which would have sent a strong signal and perhaps alienated the US from the rest of the world. It would also have placed a massive strain on the visa application system, so the US adopted the ESTA application, which is similar to procedures already in place in Australia and other countries, as a halfway house between a full visa application and the old landing card option.
Who has to apply?
Anybody who is a citizen of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Programme must fill out an ESTA registration form in advance of travel if they intend to travel to the US by sea or air. Those travelling from Mexico or Canada by road do not have to fill out the form, but all other visitors are required to supply one at check-in.
You need an ESTA form even if you do not intend to stay in the US and are simply in transit to another country and stopping off at a US airport.
There are 38 countries in the Visa Waiver Programme. They are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
Citizens from other countries that are not eligible for the Visa Waiver Programme have to go through a full visa application.
What does the ESTA entitle you to?
It is important to remember that the ESTA form is not an application for a visa. Approval when you apply for ESTA simply entitles you to board your transport for the US and your visa, as was the case in the old days of filling out landing cards, is granted to you by the border official that welcomes you to the US.
The ESTA form is nothing more than a pre-authorisation step that allows the US government to ask a series of questions and gives them sufficient time to make additional checks on anyone flagged up by the system.
It also provides a simpler way of filtering those with relevant criminal convictions, so that instead of them travelling to the US and being declined entry, which creates ill will and also takes up a significant amount of time for the immigration services, they can be informed during the ESTA application process that they are not eligible for entry into the US under the Visa Waiver Programme and they must apply for a visa at the embassy.
When should you apply?
The US embassy advises you to fill out your ESTA application at least 72 hours before you travel, in case there is a snag. Technically you can receive an instant response and you can fill the form out just before check-in, but this means that any delays will force you to miss your flight and it is highly inadvisable.
You can apply up to six months before travel; in fact, you do not even need to have specific travel plans to fill out the ESTA form and you can provide your exact flight and accommodation details at a later date. As the ESTA is valid for two years once it is approved, anybody that has doubts about their eligibility would do well to tackle the form before booking their flights and hotel.
What sort of questions are on the form?
The form covers the questions on the old Visa Waiver and includes simple questions on your background, other names or aliases, any relevant criminal convictions and more, which helps the US decide if it will grant you access. Failure to disclose relevant information is a serious offence which could result in you being declined access to the US permanently, so full disclosure is always the best policy.
Any unspent convictions, drug offences or other serious transgressions could present a problem, so it is best to deal with these well in advance. The US immigration policy is notoriously hard-line, but there are options for those that cannot go through the Visa Waiver Programme. A serious conviction, or even a drugs caution, can necessitate a trip to your regional US embassy to plead your case. In many instances an old conviction will not stop you travelling, but you must go through the proper channels and declare everything correctly. If you have any doubts, it is best to consult a third-party check and application service like ours.
What are the potential outcomes?
There are only three responses for the ESTA registration form and they are remarkably clear and straightforward. They are:
1. Authorisation approved
2. Authorisation pending
3. Travel not authorised
If your authorisation is approved, you are free to board your flight or boat to the US and you must then go through the remainder of the ESTA visa application. If you receive a pending notification then the US Border and Customs Protection office must make further checks to analyse your application.
If your application is denied and you do not receive authorisation to travel then there are still a number of steps you can take, including a full visa application. The US government will look much more sympathetically on this application if you have been honest, open and disclosed everything about your past on the ESTA form.
So the application process is relatively straightforward, but there is potentially a lot at stake when you fill out your ESTA form. If you have any doubts, or you just want to be sure about getting it right first time, then it makes good sense to enlist the help of an outside application checking service such as ourselves to simplify the whole process, take the headaches out of your US visa application and help you sleep easy, knowing that you have the form filled in correctly.
For further information as to how we can help expedite your trip to US soil, get in touch today.