Guide to ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization – Forbes UK Advisor
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Guide to ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization – Forbes UK Advisor

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Travelers traveling from the UK to the US for up to 90 days will need an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before departure.

A valid ESTA license allows travelers from 41 participating countries, including the UK, to visit the United States to travel without a visa.

You’ll need to apply for one even if you’re just catching a connecting flight from a US airport or if you’re traveling by sea, such as on a cruise, through a US port.

Here we explain how the ESTA works, how you can apply for it and how much it costs.

What is ESTA?

Electronic System for Travel Authorization – ESTA for short – is a visa waiver required for non-US citizens to visit the country for trips lasting up to 90 days.

It was introduced in 2009 and aims to improve border security by stopping people considered a threat from entering the country.

If you plan to visit the US for longer than 90 days or want to study, live or work there, you will need to apply for a full visa.

ESTA is an automated system that works similarly to the ETA visa-free regime used for travel to Australia and Canada, and the upcoming ETIAS visa-free regime, which is due to be introduced for travel to European Union countries from mid-2025.

How does ESTA work?

ESTA allows travelers from the UK to travel to the United States for tourism or business purposes for a stay of up to 90 days.

It is electronically linked to your passport, which means you do not need to carry a separate document with you. Nevertheless, it is recommended that you keep your printed ESTA travel authorization confirmation as a backup.

Please note that ESTA does not guarantee entry to the USA. You will still need to answer a series of questions at border security to confirm you are eligible to enter the country.

Who needs an ESTA permit?

You will need to apply for an ESTA if:

  • you are a UK citizen (or a citizen of a participating visa-waiver country) visiting the US
  • Your trip lasts 90 days or less
  • you are planning a trip to the United States for tourist or business purposes
  • You don’t have a visa to visit the US yet
  • you arrive by plane or cruise ship.

Please note that you will need a valid ESTA even if you are transiting through the US only to catch a connecting flight or ship to go elsewhere. If you do not meet the ESTA requirements, you will need to apply for a visa.

If you do not have a valid ESTA or visa, you will not be able to board a flight or ship from the UK.

How to apply for an ESTA?

You can apply for an ESTA online through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website or through the ESTA mobile app for Android or iOS.

When submitting your application, you must provide the following details:

  • valid passport
  • Valid email address
  • home address and contact number
  • current (or last) employer
  • contact telephone number and e-mail in case of emergency.

You will also need to provide a contact person – i.e. the address where you will be staying in the USA. If you plan to be in multiple places during your trip, the first place you go will be your point of contact.

Once you complete and submit the form, you will receive an ESTA application reference number which you can use to check the status of your application online. Alternatively, you can check these details using your passport details and date of birth.

After submitting your application, ESTA generates one of the following responses:

  • permit approved – you can travel to the USA
  • permit pending – Your application requires more time before a decision can be made
  • travel is not allowed – Your application has been rejected and you will need to apply for a visa to visit the US.

How long does it take to obtain an ESTA?

ESTA approval may take up to 72 hours, although some applications may be processed immediately. You can check the status of your application on the official ESTA website.

Avoid unofficial websites

There are several unofficial ESTA websites that claim to apply on your behalf, and many of them charge an additional fee for doing so.

These sites are not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the U.S. government.

There is only one official website where ESTA applications are processed, available at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/.

If you have used a third party site, it is important to keep a copy of your reference number to confirm your application status on the official website. And check if the details are accurate.

Refunds are not available for applications submitted via a third party ESTA service. Be sure to double-check the website’s URL to avoid getting caught.

What happens if my ESTA application is rejected?

If your ESTA application is rejected, you will need to apply for a nonimmigrant visa at the US Consulate. Visa processing may take approximately 21 business days.

If you believe you have been wrongly denied ESTA travel, you can submit an appeal request through the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Compensation Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP). However, it could take months to make a final decision.

To ensure that you receive the appropriate travel authorization in time before booking your holiday, be sure to arrange an ESTA travel.

Why may an ESTA application be rejected?

An ESTA application may be rejected for many reasons, including:

  • you already have a visa
  • you have a criminal record
  • you have previously been refused entry to the US
  • you provided false or inaccurate information in your application
  • you have a second nationality or have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia or Yemen since March 1, 2011

How much does an ESTA permit cost?

An ESTA application costs $21 (approximately £17*). If your application is rejected, you will only pay $4 (approximately £3*).

You can pay for your ESTA application by debit card, credit card or PayPal.

Please note that paying by debit or credit card may incur an additional currency exchange fee, depending on your payment service provider.

Using a specialized travel credit or debit card can help you beat foreign currency payment fees.

How long is the ESTA valid?

The ESTA is valid for two years or until your passport expires (whichever comes first).

During this period, you can make multiple trips to the USA for up to 90 days without having to re-apply.

However, you will need to reapply for ESTA if your passport is replaced or renewed before the two-year period ends.

*price converted using our currency conversion calculator and does not include any additional currency exchange fees charged by your payment service provider.

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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Can I renew my ESTA card?

No, once your ESTA expires you will need to apply for a new one.

Do I need to print my ESTA card?

Although it is not mandatory to print a copy of your ESTA, having a physical copy is a useful backup.

Check out our holiday checklist for a summary of other travel documents and holiday essentials to take with you on your trip.

Do I need an ESTA to travel to Hawaii?

Yes, to travel to Hawaii for stays of up to 90 days, you must have a valid ESTA.