ESTA is a form of travel authorisation that allows citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States without the need for a visa. Specifically, these countries are known as ‘Visa Waiver Program’ member countries, and currently amount to 38 states around the globe.
The primary purpose of the ESTA is to allow travellers to visit the USA for tourism or on business, without the need to jump through the complex hoops of a visa application. This is because the travellers are somewhat pre-screened before they even get on a plane. This is significant, as it streamlines the travel planning process for millions of travellers, and increases tourism and trade between the USA and its international counterparts.
All this to say, the ESTA is a great tool, and on the whole it is simple and easy to work with. Nevertheless, there are still certain aspects that cause confusion among travellers, which is why we’re here to clear up any doubts or uncertainties before you head off to the US. Today, what we will be addressing is the need for an ESTA if you are only passing through the USA in transit.
When we talk about going through the USA ‘in transit’, what we mean is that you have a connecting flight to go elsewhere, and that your time in the USA is simply a layover. Every country has different systems in place in this respect, which is why many people are unsure how it works. If you’ve had a layover before in a country that would usually require you to have a visa, but given the nature of your fleeting visit you’ve not had to get one, then you may well be inclined to think that this is the same system for the USA.
This is not the case. The fact of the matter is, everybody who gets off a plane on US soil needs to have some sort of travel authorisation to be there. If you already have a visa or an ESTA from previous trips, then this is fine. If not, you will need to apply for ESTA online in order to transit through the USA – provided you are a citizen of a Visa Waiver Program member country. Given that ESTA is the easiest travel authorisation to apply for, and also the cheapest and quickest, this is the best option for you. Unfortunately, there is no way you can fly into the USA without some sort of prior authorisation, nor can the ESTA fee be waived in light of the very brief time period you will actually be spending in the country.
The reason behind this is that United States law requires all passengers to disembark at their first airport or port of call. Generally, whenever you have a layover, this means getting off the plane and boarding a new one, however it used to be more common for people to stay on the plane, which then went on to the next destination. In any case, this is relevant because passengers then have to clear US immigrations, collect all their checked-in luggage, go through customs and then proceed to check in for their next flight via the ‘in-transit’ desk. In turn, this means you have to check in your luggage again, and go through the same procedures when you reach your end destination.
You may still wonder why this means you have to have travel authorisation to be in the United States for a layover. It comes down to whereabouts in the airport you are… If you’ve ever had a layover before where you can’t leave the airport, then this means you remained ‘airside’ the whole time (i.e. the side of the airports where the gates are, past security). If you remain airside, then there’s no reason for you to have travel authorisation to be there. However, once you go through passport control and customs and have collected your luggage, you can now get to ‘landside’ (i.e. the pre-security area where anybody can be). Given that it is a legal requirement for travellers to go through this process when they arrive in the USA, this means that all travellers could technically go landside and thus remain in the country after going through it. And if there’s any possibility for passengers to remain landside, then they need to have gone through a vetting process in advance.
In fact, given that it is a legal requirement for anybody boarding a plane to the USA to have travel authorisation, you will not actually be allowed on the plane in the first place if you don’t have it. Airlines themselves actually have to apply to transport ESTA holders into the USA, and there are sanctions in place for them if they fail to check valid authorisations in advance. Furthermore, if they do bring over any undocumented travellers, they are then legally obliged to transport them back home on the next departing flight. Obviously, this comes at a cost, and inconvenience, to the airline. This is good for you for two reasons: 1) it stops you having to fly around the world and straight back if for any reason you don’t have travel authorisation; and 2) it means that, if your airline sees that you do not have an ESTA or a visa, it gives you a short window of time to actually apply for one before the plane departs.
In this latter case, obviously it’s not the ideal circumstance, given that your ESTA can take up to 24 hours to be approved, and there is no guarantee of you getting this approval. Nevertheless, it is always worth trying, because the vast majority of ESTA applications are approved, and generally speaking the approval comes through to your email address pretty much instantly. As long as you have an internet connection and a debit or credit card with you, this may very well save your day.
And the fact of the matter is, an internet connection and a debit or credit card is all you need to apply for ESTA (as well as your passport of course). The application itself consists in a short form, which takes around ten minutes or so to complete. The form will ask you a range of security questions, and will ask you to submit your identification details as they appear on your passport. When it comes to your passport, you must be using the same passport you used at the time of applying for ESTA. This is important because, for those with dual nationality, your ESTA can only be used with the passport you used for the application. It is also important because your ESTA expires as soon as your passport does – if you renew your passport, you will need to apply for a brand new ESTA, as some of the details will have changed (passport number and expiry date, at least).
So to respond to our original question, you do need some sort of travel authorisation, and if this isn’t an ESTA then it will need to be a valid visa.
It is also important to remember that you will need to ensure you have the appropriate travel authorisation for your end destination. Just because you have been screened for the USA, this does not mean you are pre-authorised to go elsewhere. Be sure to check up on all the paperwork for your destination in advance to avoid any surprises. If you are flying from Europe and have the USA as a layover point, then your end destination will presumably be in the Americas. Generally speaking, the processes for getting your visas there are conducted upon arrival, but this is not always the case, so do your research.
Finally, don’t be too annoyed about having to get an ESTA just to go through the USA in transit. Once you have it, it remains valid for two years, giving you a perfectly good excuse to come back at another time and make the most of your ESTA, exploring any part of the USA or US territories.