Guide to ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation to the USA)

Find out about the USA’s Visa Waiver Programme - ESTA - and how to apply if you're heading to America.

Kim Jones
Kim Jones
Updated 14 December 2022  | 2 min read

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Key points

  • ESTA is an online system that determines whether you're eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Programme
  • You need to complete an ESTA application if your trip to the US lasts for less than 90 days - longer trips require a visa
  • Apply only through the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection - beware copycat sites who’ll charge you more

What is ESTA?

ESTA is an online facility that allows eligible people to receive approved travel authorisation to the United States under its Visa Waiver Programme (VWP).

The VWP enables people from certain designated countries, including the UK, to travel to the United States for tourism or business stays of 90 days or less without the need to obtain a visa.

After 9/11, ESTA became mandatory to tighten the security of the VWP and determine whether an individual is eligible to travel to the United States without posing a threat or security risk.

When you’ve completed an ESTA application, you’ll be notified if you’re eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP.

Do I need a visa to travel to the USA from the UK?

To visit or transit through the United States as a non-national, you need permission either in the form of a visa or authorisation for visa-free travel with ESTA.

If your trip to the USA is for business or pleasure, for 90 days or less, and you’re a citizen of one of the 40 VWP-eligible countries (which includes the UK), you need to apply for travel authorisation via ESTA.

For trips longer than 90 days you’ll require a visa.

There are also other incidences where you may not be eligible for an ESTA visa waiver and will need to apply for a visa instead. These include if:

  • You’ve travelled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen on or after 1 March 2011
  • You’ve travelled to or have been in Cuba
  • You’ve been arrested (even if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction)
  • You have a criminal record
  • You’ve been refused admission into, or have been deported from the USA previously
  • You’ve previously overstayed under an ESTA

ESTA application and costs

You should apply for an ESTA on the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Make your application as soon as you start planning your trip to the US, before you book flights, but at least 72 hours before travelling.

You’ll need a valid passport and to input basic information about yourself, like your name and date of birth, plus your email address, employers’ details, your US point of contact (the hotel or location you’ll be visiting). You’ll also be asked to answer several security questions.

The application costs $21 per person payable by credit card, PayPal or Apple Pay.

Every member of the party travelling to the US must have an ESTA, including children.

You can only apply for an ESTA online, and travel agents can fill in the form on your behalf.

How long does it take to get an ESTA?

It’ll usually take about 20-25 minutes to fill out your ESTA application.

You should find out if you’re approved or rejected for an ESTA straight away, but it could take up to 72 hours.

Keep a note of your reference number

You’ll receive an application number once your email has been verified. Keep a note of it. You’ll need it to retrieve your application, check its status or to update it.

How long will my ESTA last?

An approved ESTA application is valid for two years, or until your passport expires - whichever is first. You can take multiple trips to the US without having to renew the ESTA, as long as each stay is not more than 90 days.

Why would an ESTA application be declined?

One of the most common reasons an ESTA application is denied is if your stay is for more than 90 days. Alternatively it could be because you’ve ticked ‘yes’ to any of the vetting eligibility questions such as if you have a criminal record or have had a previous visa or ESTA rejected.

What can I do then?

If you made a mistake on your form, and accidentally ticked yes to an eligibility question, you can try to reapply. But there’s no guarantee your new application will be accepted.

In most circumstances where travel authorisation under an ESTA is rejected, you’d need to apply for a visa from the United States embassy instead.

Beware of bogus sites

There are some companies that claim they can apply for an ESTA on your behalf for a fee. But there’s no need to use them. You should only apply through the genuine ESTA website.

Other things to consider

An ESTA approval does not guarantee you entry to the United States. Customs and Border Protection officers can still deny you admission when you arrive if they think you’re not eligible under the VWP or for any reason under United States law.