The ESTA is a form of travel authorisation, serving as an affordable alternative to a visa that is generally easier to get hold of. It forms part of the Visa Waiver Programme, which currently has 38 member states. Citizens of these countries are all entitled to apply for ESTA online, and thus travel to the USA without a visa if approved.
On the whole, the way the ESTA works is very simple. It comes with a few clear rules and restrictions, which govern how and when it can be used. For example, the main essence of the ESTA is that it can be used for tourism or business purposes, but not for working in the USA, long-term study, migrating, etc. It can also be used for certain short-term study programmes, which do not give academic credit, as well as for medical procedures. In any case, any trip made to the USA with an ESTA, under the Visa Waiver Program, can only last a maximum of 90 days.
Here we will take a look at how ESTA can or cannot be used when crossing borders.
First of all, it is important to specify that the ESTA is authorisation to travel to the United States. Once you arrive, it is up to a border patrol officer to approve or deny your entry under the Visa Waiver Program. In this sense, the ESTA (or a visa) is a necessary prerequisite for boarding a US-bound carrier. Specifically, it can be used for travel into the United States via a commercial airline or a cruise ship.
However, the rules for other kinds of crossings are a little different:
If you enter the United States by car from a neighbouring country, you do not need to have already applied for ESTA. Instead, you can obtain the I-94W visa waiver upon arrival. This form still operates under the Visa Waiver Program, with the same 90-day limit and purposes for travel. The form costs $6 per person.
It is worth bearing in mind that land crossings are not the same as they are in Europe. There is a formal border crossing procedure, which will involve you and your vehicle going through customs. There is no way of saying how long you will be waiting to do this, as it depends on how many other travellers are trying to cross that part of the border that day. You can expect to wait 30 minutes or so, but this could very easily be quicker or much longer. You can often check how long queues are prior to travel.
While the ESTA is not a requirement for land crossings, you can still cut down your waiting time by having one, so applying for ESTA online in advance of your trip is something to consider if entering the country in a vehicle.
The ESTA can only be used when entering the USA on an authorised carrier. For this reason, if you are travelling to the states on a private aircraft, you will often need to have a traditional US visa.
The fact is, carriers themselves have to be authorised to carry passengers with ESTAs (these are known as ‘signatory carriers’). These days it is very hard to find a commercial airline that flies to the USA and does not have this authorisation, but this is not the case for private charters. This authorisation only lasts for seven years, so private aircraft carriers that do not often travel to the United States are less likely to be ‘signatory carriers’.
If you are entering the United States on a private aircraft, check with your carrier first whether you are able to travel with ESTA.
When it comes to sea crossings, the ESTA can only be used if you enter the country on a cruise ship. But this does not necessarily mean you need a visa. If you enter a port on a private boat, you will indeed need a visa, however certain ferry journeys are treated as land crossings.
Specifically, citizens from Visa Waiver Program member countries do not need an ESTA to enter the USA on a ferry between Vancouver and Victoria, or British Columbia and Washington state. These crossings follow the same procedure as entering the country by land, whereby the traveller can fill out an I-94W form upon arrival.
The ESTA clock
As we have already mentioned, when you travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, each trip can have a maximum duration of 90 days. This means that whenever you leave the country, this clock essentially resets. You can make as many trips to the United States as you choose within the validity period of your ESTA (which is two years from the time of approval, unless your passport expires during this time, in which case this is when your ESTA expires).
Nevertheless, this is by no means a loophole for cheating the system. The fact that the clock ‘resets’ could be seen as a way to spend long periods in the United States without the need for a visa, but this is not so. Every trip you make with ESTA must adhere to the conditions of the Visa Waiver Program, and every time you enter the country with ESTA you will be questioned by a border patrol officer upon arrival. If they suspect you of using ESTA to spend time illegally in the United States, you will not be granted access in to the country, and you will be sent back to your port of origin on the same carried you arrived on.
This 90-day timer does not, however, reset when you visit Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean Islands. In other words, if you include a trip to one of these places as part of your trip to the United States, the 90-day timer of your ESTA continues to count down whilst you are there. Of course, this is only relevant if you return to the USA after spending time in one of these countries. It is also very important to understand that the ESTA does not count as authorisation to travel to any of these places, which all have their own travel authorisation rules in place.
For example, Canada also has a visa waiver program in place, which is not the same as the US system. The equivalent of the ESTA in Canada is called the eTA (Electronic Travel Authorisation). The application is just as simple as that of the ESTA, and most travellers are approved within minutes. The cost of the eTA is $7 CAD, and it allows you to stay in Canada as a tourist for up to six months at a time, with a validity period of five years (or until your passport expires, whichever comes first).
Meanwhile, on the southern side, Mexico has a slightly different system in place. The first 20-35km into the country from the US border are known as the ‘Free Zone’, which is the easiest part to visit. With a view to boost border tourism and facilitate travel, this area does not require any formal travel authorisation. When you drive into the country from the states you go through a lights system; if you see a green light, you can drive straight through, and if you see a red light, you are asked to go to a secondary inspection zone. All passport scans take place when you return to the US. If you want to leave this ‘Free Zone’, you will need to fill out the ‘FMM’ (Multiple Migration Form), which works as a tourist card. You can get this online in advance, or at an immigration office when you arrive in Mexico.
The Visa Waiver Program has been designed to generally streamline the travel process and facilitate entering the United States on the whole. For this reason, you will find it perfectly easy to cross borders with your ESTA, which is partly thanks to the fact that the ESTA is automatically attached to your passport digitally. This means that you do not need to print anything out or have anything signed.
The key thing to take away here is that you must never overstay 90 days during a single trip, and that if your journey to the USA is part of a longer trip to neighbouring countries, be sure to check out the specific travel requirements that these countries have in place too.