Nevertheless, there’s often a little confusion around some of the finer details of the ESTA, how it is used and what the conditions are. Here we’re going to dig into the question of when to apply for ESTA, as there are a few things to bear in mind when planning your travel authorisation.
The first thing to make clear is you can apply for ESTA at any time. As long as you are a citizen of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program, you can apply for ESTA online, whether or not you’ve done so before or had a US visa in the past. But one question that many applicants ask themselves is:
Should I have my flights and accommodation booked before or after I get my ESTA?
This is the golden question, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each way of going about it. The online ESTA application form itself has a section that asks you to provide the name and address of where you are staying in the USA, as well as your port of entry. Judging by the questions, they assume that you already have a specific journey planned, if not already booked.
However, it’s important to understand that you can answer ‘UNKNOWN’ to these questions if you don’t have these things organised yet – the form may imply that you should know these things in advance, the questions also specify that you can respond with ‘UNKNOWN’, which also features in drop-down menus for certain questions.
Many people feel uneasy about having ‘unknown’ feature repeatedly on the ESTA application form, however this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. The more information you can provide, the easier it is for your application to be automatically approved or denied (after all, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization is an automated system), but in theory your chances of being approved are not deteriorated by not introducing these details.
So, what’s the advantage of ordering an ESTA online if you don’t already have a trip booked? Well, this is another key factor for many applicants: peace of mind. You see, ESTA approval rates are very high (around 97% or so). This is because the countries that form part of the Visa Waiver Program have been pre-approved as countries that pose very little risk to the USA; this is based on historic visa approval rates, among other things. Citizens of these countries are deemed to generally be high-value and low-risk to the USA. So, unless there’s a reason for which your case doesn’t correspond with the terms and conditions of the ESTA, you have no reason to worry about being approved. Better still, you find out the status of your ESTA application incredibly quickly, always within 24 hours. BUT, and this is where peace of mind comes in to play, if your ESTA is not approved you will have to go down the more traditional route of getting US travel authorization, which is by applying for a visa…
Whilst visas are much less restrictive in terms of traveling to the USA (duration, what you can do when you’re there, etc.), the process for applying for them is much more strenuous, time consuming and expensive. If you already have a trip booked to the USA and you don’t have your ESTA yet, there is always a small risk that you will be denied ESTA, and won’t have enough time to get a visa before your intended departure date. For this reason, getting ESTA approved before you book flights or accommodation gives you the reassurance that you will be authorised to travel, and won’t run the risk of wasting your money on travel expenses.
In that case, why would anybody wait until they had their trip planned before they applied for ESTA?
This comes down to two factors really. On the one hand, we need to understand the time periods associated with the ESTA. As you may already know, the ESTA allows you to travel to the USA for up to 90 days at a time, as long as you are traveling as a tourist or on business (among some other, more niche purposes). With ESTA, you can travel to the USA repeatedly, with each trip taking up a maximum of 90 days, within a maximum period of two years. This two-year clock starts ticking the moment your ESTA is approved. So, if you apply for ESTA six months before your trip, you may feel like you’re not making the most of this two-year window, and be tempted to apply for it a little closer to your time of travel. It’s worth highlighting here that the validity of the ESTA is only two years if your passport remains valid within this period – if not, as soon as your passport expires your ESTA will expire too. It is also not possible to apply for ESTA if you don’t yet have a passport (the key thing here is that the ESTA is linked specifically to the passport you used at the time of application).
The other factor is the practicality of booking a trip – sometimes an opportunity comes up (a last-minute trip or a business opportunity, for example), which means you end up booking your trip before getting your ESTA.
Now, we always keep you up to date with ESTA news, changes, plans, etc., which brings us on to another reason for getting your ESTA further in advance. Before the election, a part of Donald Trump’s campaign revolved around increased vetting for non-Americans coming into the United States, and at one point he even mentioned that he’d like to shut down the Visa Waiver Program. Certain major changes have already been made with respect to national security, and so many people are up in the air with respect to how border security and travel into the United States will change further. But the Visa Waiver Program has not changed, and so far into Trump’s presidency, there’s no reason for us to think he’ll shut the program down. Nevertheless, it’s perfectly possible that the process will be a little bit more extensive, with additional security questions or background checks. This is speculation, but these are all possibilities we should consider.
For this reason, someone expecting or hoping to travel to the USA within the next couple of years might well consider getting their ESTA authorization in advance. The process is currently quick and easy, and while we can be sure that it’s still like this, why not have the reassurance of getting it advance? By way of example, recently an extra ‘social media’ section was introduced into the ESTA form (it’s not compulsory to fill out, but it may well become so). As national security becomes more and more of a priority, it’s perfectly possible for more components to be added to the ESTA application process, and so the easiest thing to do is apply sooner rather than later.
So, weighing up the pros and cons, the final factor that comes into play of course is the cost of applying for ESTA. Naturally, we want to get the most out of our ability to travel to the USA without a visa, and so to get our money’s worth we may feel like waiting until a few days before we travel is a good idea. The point to bear in mind here is the cost of the ESTA is incredibly low, and significantly smaller than any US visa (it’s probably cheaper than your transport to get to your nearest US embassy or consulate, which you would have to do to get a visa, just to put it into perspective).
Given the affordability of the ESTA, and the fact that at the moment it’s just as simple to get as it has been for years, it seems logical to apply for ESTA online before you have your trip planned out; even if you don’t know when you might go, it does no harm to have your travel authorisation organised well ahead of time.
All in all, as long as you know how it works and the time frames involved, you can apply for ESTA whenever it suits you best. If that’s the week before you travel, it’s still highly unlikely that it’ll be a problem! But, erring on the side of caution and favouring good organization, we can only conclude that the best time is now!