However, applying for this visa is a lengthy and somewhat costly process. We’ll go into this in more detail below, but for now it’s enough to understand that the process can be excessive for many travelers.
Whilst a visa is still a necessity for migrating to the USA, or for staying there for any extended period of time, the whole process is not particularly necessary for people who are simply visiting the country as tourists or on business trips. This is why the ESTA was designed…
Essentially, the United States government wanted to facilitate the process for obtaining travel authorization for citizens of countries that are deemed to be ‘low risk’. The program they designed is called the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP, and is currently applicable to 38 countries. This number has gradually increased over time, and the country constantly considers new member states that could participate in the program. The program allows for citizens of these countries to apply for ESTA, instead of a traditional US visa. It’s important to understand the the ESTA is not a visa, but rather an authorization to travel without the need for a visa.
But what does ‘low risk’ really refer to? This is generally a direct reflection of how many visa applicants from a given country are denied visas, as a percentage. Specifically, if this is higher than 3%, the country cannot participate in the Visa Waiver Program. It’s also important for the country to consistently comply with US immigration law.
So, the ESTA is the travel documentation that citizens of Visa Waiver Program member countries can apply for. In other words, simply being a citizen of one of these countries does not instantly grant you authorization to visit the USA, but rather you need to apply for it. Though the vast majority of applicants are approved, this is not always the case.
The ESTA application process takes place entirely online (as opposed to the visa, which we’ll get to later). Applicants fill out an online ESTA application form, and have to answer a short set of questions about themselves. Given that one of the main ideas behind ESTA was its simplicity, this process is incredibly efficient. In fact, applicants tend to get their approval status within 24 hours of completing the application.
The process is so fast because the screening process is entirely automated (this is the case for the majority of applications, however occasionally they require more in-depth processing). Basically, the electronic system cross references your details with a range of official databases, and approves or denies your application on that basis.
This simplified process is designed specifically for travelers who are visiting the United States for pleasure or on business (although in some cases other purposes are accepted). The key limitation is that travelers cannot remain in the country for a period of longer than 90 days. This is set in stone, and anybody who needs to be in the USA for any longer than 90 days must apply for a visa. The other timeframe associated with the ESTA is its validity – the ESTA is valid for 2 years from the moment that it is received, unless the holder’s passport expires beforehand. So, if you apply for an ESTA on 1 November 2016, it will be valid until 1 November 2018. However, if your passport is only valid until 2017, your ESTA will become void at that point, and you will need to apply for a new one the next time you want to travel to the USA. This is important to understand because the ESTA is linked specifically to the passport that was used at the time of application. This means that even if you renew your passport during the validity of your ESTA, you will need to apply for a brand new ESTA once you have a new passport.
On the other hand, there are various reasons for which an ESTA may not correspond with your travel needs. For example, if you are looking for work of any kind, or if you have already been hired for a job position, you are obliged to apply for a visa. Generally speaking, this will be the B-1 visa. This also applies to unpaid or volunteer work. In this case, it’s important to differentiate between what classifies as traveling on business and what classifies as work. Traveling on business typically involves you needing to visit the USA as part of your existing work in your home country (for a meeting, a conference, etc.). However, if you are going to the USA to fill a job position there, this isn’t counted as traveling ‘on business’, and thus you cannot travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program.
If you are planning to travel to the USA for pleasure for a period of longer than 90 days (as can often be the case for students taking gap years or people with long-term travel plans), you will need to apply for the corresponding tourist visa, which is known as the B-2 visa. This is also the right visa for you if you are going to the USA to receive medical care, although the ESTA can sometimes be used for the same purpose. If you are planning to visit the USA as a tourist for less than 90 days, you are eligible to apply for ESTA authorization. In some cases, you can also use the B-2 visa if your main reason for travel is tourism, but you will also be taking part in a short study program, or if the course is recreational or vocational.
Generally, however, if you are going to the USA to engage in a study program, you will need to get a student visa. These can be broken down into two separate visas:
The other most common US visas are immigrant visas. These vary widely, depending on the applicant’s circumstances, and are designed for people who intend to move permanently to the United States. Naturally, the criteria for immigrant visas are far more extensive than those for tourist visas or ESTA, and so the process is considerably more complex.
To apply for a visa, you should inform yourself in detail about the different options and requirements. This can be done via your nearest US embassy or consulate, which will have a website explaining your options. When it comes to the application itself, this will also be done through an embassy or consulate, and will require an in-person interview at some point during the procedure. The whole process can take weeks, if not months, and so should be planned for well in advance.
It’s worth mentioning that you cannot travel with ESTA initially and then apply for any of these visas when you are already in the United States. Once you visit the USA with ESTA, under the Visa Waiver Program, you must not stay in the country for any more than 90 days. If you do want to apply for a visa, you must return to your home country and apply from there.
As you can see, the ESTA is far more convenient for you if you are simply traveling as a tourist or on business. To apply, you just need to fill in the online ESTA application form, providing your passport details and personal information, as well as answering a few security questions. As with US visas, each person traveling needs to have his/her own individual ESTA, including babies and children (of course, you can complete the online ESTA application on behalf of another person).
Once you receive your ESTA approval, by email and within 24 hours of completing your application, you are now eligible to travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program. You aren’t required to print this approval, as once you arrive in the USA this information will already be made available to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents digitally. However, your airline may want you to have a printed copy, so be sure to check. Finally, it’s worth noting that, regardless of your travel authorization, the final decision as to whether or not to allow you access into the USA comes down to the CBP agents. Rest assured, if your application was truthful and honest, and you have never breached the conditions of your travel authorization, you will have no issues.
Be sure you know exactly which is the best travel authorization for your trip, whether it’s an ESTA or a visa, and rid yourself of any worries when it comes to travel documents.