Travelling to America: What’s an ESTA?

Australian passport atop a map

The first time I visited America in 2008 there was no paperwork. The second, as a camp counsellor in 2010, there was too much. On my third visit I was confronted with emails saying I needed to fill out and be approved for an ESTA through the Visa Waiver Program before travelling to America, which begs the question – what the heck is an ESTA?

What is an ESTA?

To simplify border control the United States have implemented a new automated system called ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which is an automated system used to determine if the traveller is authorised to travel to the US under the VWP (Visa Waiver Program).

Who needs to fill in an ESTA?

To determine if you need an ESTA then there are five requirements;

  • You must be part of the 38 countries participating in the VWP
    (Current list of countries include Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, United Kingdom – to see full list click here)
  • You’re travelling to the United States on a plane or cruise ship for temporary business or pleasure.
  • Your trip is 90 days or less.
  • If you’re transiting through the United States to another country.
  • You do not hold another visa to enter the US.

How do I fill it in?

To apply for an ESTA you can visit their website and follow the prompts. Be sure to have the following ready to fill in the online form;

  • Passport number
  • Travel documents (including address of your place of residence whilst in the US and flight or cruise details for entry and exit travel)
The website will take you through a series of questions – much akin to filling in a landing card – asking if you have any medical issues, criminal history, or if you are seeking employment in the US.
At the end, you will be prompted to pay an administration processing fee (US$4) and then an additional fee if you are approved to receive an ESTA (US$10). This is only payable using credit or debit cards. It takes approximately 72 hours to process an ESTA but recommended you apply as soon after booking as possible to ensure there are no problems issuing your visa.

What’s next?

Upon completing your application online and submitting it, wait a minimum of three business days before you check to see the status of your visa. An email will not be sent confirming that your visa has been approved for travel, it must be verified online.

Three possible responses will be received;

  • Authorization Approved: you’re ready for the US!
  • Travel Not Authorized: you will need to obtain a non-immigrant visa at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate before travelling to the US
  • Authorization Pending: Continue to check the ESTA website because a decision has not been made.

The Low Down

ESTA’s currently costs a processing fee + an additional visa fee should you be accepted totaling US$14. payable by credit or debit card. 

If you aren’t comfortable applying for the visa yourself or would like to leave it in the hands of the professionals, there are many ESTA visa agencies who provide quality service for an additional service fee. You can check it out here.

ESTA’s are valid for two-years or until your passport expires – whichever is shorter – unless otherwise notified. When you renew your passport there is a passport renewal fee. Having a ESTA does not mean you are guaranteed entrance approval from US border patrol when arriving in the United States.

Apply for the ESTA on their website

Please note that visa information changes regularly. For the most up-to-date information
see the US Customs and Border Patrol website.

 PostImage: AusPost

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  • Reply
    Koren @ City Gal
    December 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    How did you like America? Did you make it to New York?!

    • Reply
      December 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      Hi Koren,
      I enjoy America, been there a few times now including having lived and worked in New York.
      New York is one of my favourite cities, so watch out for my City Guide which will be out by the end of the week. =)

      Hopefully can find some awesome tips and tricks for the city on CityGirl =)

  • Reply
    Nina Naira
    March 8, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    Hi, Nicole, for sharing this great post about ESTA. I am planning to visit the USA as a traveller. I have a valid passport, it is very necessary as well as ESTA? Thanks, for sharing this wonderful post.

    • Reply
      March 8, 2018 at 6:07 pm

      Hi Nina,
      Thanks for messaging!

      From what I understand every country needs to have an ESTA or valid visa to enter the USA. For more information about the rules relating to your particular country I would highly recommend checking the United States Embassy website for your country.

      Safe travels!

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