Most travellers to the United States will encounter something called the ESTA – a 'visa waiver' which lets you enter the US without needing to apply for a conventional visa.
And ESTA is a step you can't overlook, because unless you've already got either an immigrant, non-immigrant, diplomat or another special visa, you won't be allowed to board your US-bound flight. So here's the drill.
Obtaining your USA ESTA: What is it?
ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, and you apply for it online.
Undertaken carefully, the process takes around 10-15 minutes and in most cases, you'll receive your travel authorisation right away.
Each ESTA is valid for two years and covers an unlimited number of entries into the United States spanning both business trips and personal holidays, but it must remain valid for the entirety of your stay of 90 days or less. So if you're cutting it fine and it will expire while you're Stateside, it's best to renew first.
You can apply before booking your flights and hotels, or even as a ‘just in case’ – handy if your Stateside treks usually pop up at a moment's notice.
Obtaining your USA ESTA: The basics
A recent price increase to the ESTA means the travel authorisation now costs US$21 (around A$29), which can be charged to your Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Diners Club credit or debit card, or through PayPal.
Don’t be fooled by numerous ESTA websites that charge inflated fees and masquerade as the official government portal. Some may be legitimate and will process the application on your behalf, there’s no need to share your personal information with a third party and pay a higher fee when you can easily apply via the official channel.
The best place to apply is through the official US Department of Home Affairs portal.
Applications can be made at any time before travel and clearance is normally granted immediately, but the DHS recommends doing so at least 72 hours before departure in case of any delays.
During the application you’ll be prompted to enter details of your next USA-bound flight and your intended address in America, but it’s perfectly acceptable to leave these details blank if your journey hasn’t yet been booked.
A single ESTA application also allows for travel both as a tourist and when on business, so if your company has already paid the ESTA fee to cover your work trips, you can also holiday in the United States under that same travel authorisation without paying a penny more.
While normally valid for two years, your ESTA clearance may expire early if your passport expires or you change your name during that time – in which case you'll need to apply again.
Obtaining your USA ESTA: What if I need a visa?
Whether you’ll need to apply for ESTA clearance or a traditional USA visa depends on the reason for your visit, the duration of your stay and your criminal and travel history.
For business travellers in most industries who plan to stay in North America for 90 days or less and who hold a return or onward ticket, the ESTA system will suffice.
Visits exceeding 90 days require jetsetters to apply for a ‘non-immigrant visa’. Those who haven’t played by the rules on a previous trip to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) – such as by remaining in the country for longer than the 90-day limit – will need to apply for a visa as well.
Time spend in Canada, Mexico and any adjacent islands counts towards the 90-day ceiling, so making a side trip to Vancouver or Tijuana doesn’t reset the timer.
Flying beyond those regions, however – such as from New York to London – does end the ‘visit’, with travellers then able to jet back to the United States at any time for a fresh start on the 90-day cap.
You’re still able to apply for a regular US visa in lieu of ESTA clearance: and while that’s an option if your ESTA application is denied, travellers with a US visa in their passport don’t need to also complete an ESTA application unless travelling for a specific purpose – such as business or leisure – that isn’t already covered by that visa.
Finally, travellers who have been arrested or convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude”, which the US government defines as “conduct which is inherently base, vile, or depraved and contrary to the accepted rules of morality and the duties owed to persons or society in general”, aren’t eligible to travel under the VWP and must apply for a visa.
Examples given of such severe crimes include murder and drug trafficking, but if you’ve only been pinged with parking tickets and low-level speeding fines, you’re clear to make an ESTA application.
If in doubt about your personal criminal or traffic history and how it may affect your ability to travel, seek guidance from a legal professional. Executive Traveller cannot and does not provide legal advice, nor has it considered your personal circumstances in preparing this guide.
Obtaining your USA ESTA: The fine print
While an approved ESTA application makes you eligible to travel to the United States under the visa-waiver program, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be allowed to cross the border when you land.
You’ll still be questioned by a US Customs and Border Protection officer on your arrival, who may determine that you are inadmissible under the VWP or for any reason under United States law.
If you’re the holder of two Australian passports, you’ll need to make separate ESTA applications for each passport that you intend to use for travel to the United States.
You’ll also need to apply if you’re merely transiting the United States en route to another country, in which case travellers should enter “In Transit” in the address box during the application process.
Obtaining your USA ESTA: One final tip
When the ESTA application process is complete, the system will generate a ‘traveller authorisation application number’ alongside an ‘authorisation approved’ message, which globetrotters should either print or save to a PDF and keep on file.
The US government advises that VWP travellers don’t need to carry a printout of the authorisation, but we’d still recommend doing so in case it’s unnecessarily requested by your airline during check-in.
It also proves that your ESTA application was successful during any IT outages, which could take a little stress out of your next trip to North America.
Apply for ESTA clearance today: visit the official DHS ESTA website.