ESTA, or the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, is a requirement from the United States government for travelers using the Visa Waiver Program. The ESTA system is a pre-authorization for travel to the U.S. and lets travelers fill out the I-94W form online before traveling to the U.S.A.
An ESTA clearance is a requirement for travel to the U.S.A. since 12 January 2009, and if a traveler doesn't have this done before arriving at the airport, check in will be denied by the airline. Once a traveler has received clearance, it can be re-used for up to 2 years.
Under the visa waiver program (VWP), the United States allows foreign nationals of the VWP Countries to stay for up to 90 days or less on business or for pleasure without obtaining a visa. The approval is good for multiple entries - meaning you may use it for more than one entry into the U.S.
If you visit Canada, Mexico, and "adjacent islands", those visits don't reset the 90 day maximum stay period. I take "adjacent islands" to mean places like U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean destinations.
Notably, there's no set period which must take place between each visit. The only guidance is that visits should be spaced far enough apart that the Customs and Border Protection officer does not think you are trying to live in the U.S. Of course, trying to visit more than half the year would be a red flag, as would any visit that doesn't have a permissible purpose. I.e. business visits or tourism.
If you're worried they may think you're trying to live there, then you could bring extra documents as evidence - eg, your flight out of America back to your home country, or proof of your current employment and residence at home. In other words anything to convince them that you're not actually surreptitiously residing in the U.S.
The ESTA is most definitely not a visa, and is only usable by citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries. If you're not a citizen of one of these countries, you'll need to apply for a visa at your nearest American Embassy.
Applying for ESTA clearance
Visit the Department of Homeland Security website at esta.cbp.dhs.gov. You'll need your passport at hand, as well as your first flight details for the U.S. visit and an address where you'll be staying. A hotel address is sufficient.
You should visit the site to apply for your ESTA at least 72 hours before your flight. Once the form is filled in, you'll find out right away whether you've received authorization. Make sure to print out a copy of the confirmation, because you'll need it at the airport or other transportation.
From August 2010 there's a USD 14 ESTA fee to apply for the ESTA clearance.
Countries included in the ESTA Visa Waiver Program
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
Watch out for scams
There have been a number of website popping up that will assist you in applying for the ESTA, for a fee of course. This is at best wasted money, at worst an outright scam. None of these websites or companies are working together with the Department of Homeland Security so stay well away.
There's also a possibility that a website which isn't the official one, could collect your private information and be used to either steal your identity or break in to your home while away.
Where to apply
Apply only at the official ESTA site here:
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