A guide to ESTA for travel to America

When you book a trip to the USA, you’ll need an ESTA as well as your passport before you’ll be allowed to travel. Here’s a quick and easy guide to everything ESTA, including how to get one and how much an ESTA costs.

When you book a trip to the USA, you’ll need an ESTA as well as your passport before you’ll be allowed to travel. Here’s a quick and easy guide to everything ESTA, including how to get one and how much an ESTA costs.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: please check the latest government travel advice that sets out what you need to do, if anything, before you travel abroad and before you return home. You should also check the latest travel advice and entry requirements for each country you visit or transit through. Travel rules can change at short notice, so check the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) for the latest information.

Josh Daniels
Travel Insurance expert
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Posted 28 JANUARY 2020 Last Updated 8 JUNE 2022

What is an ESTA?

ESTA stands for electronic system for travel authorisation. You’ll need one of these if you’re a UK citizen visiting the USA by air or sea for less than 90 days, either on holiday or on a business trip.

It’s an online form that you fill in before you travel to find out whether you’re eligible to visit the USA. It’s part of the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travellers from certain countries to travel to the USA without a visa.

If you’re travelling to the States for more than 90 days, or you plan to live and work there, you’ll need to apply for a visa instead.

Customers with more serious pre-existing medical conditions

If you have a serious health condition, the price you pay for travel insurance is likely to be more expensive. However, there are still many providers out there and you should be able to find affordable cover. Whatever happens, don’t be tempted to lie to an insurance provider, because if you do and then need to make a claim, it could be rejected.

When you declare medical conditions on our website, we’ll only show quotes from insurance providers who will cover all declared medical conditions, with no exclusions. 

MoneyHelper has launched a directory of insurance providers who may be able to provide quotes over the phone if you have more serious medical conditions. Find more information at MoneyHelper or by calling them on 0800 138 7777.

Who can apply for an ESTA?

People from 40 countries are able to apply for an ESTA. The UK is on the list, so if you hold a British passport, then an ESTA is the way to go.

Even if you’re only passing through the USA, you’ll still need an ESTA if you’re planning to travel by plane or ship. If you’re travelling to America overland – perhaps after a trip to Canada – you’ll have to fill in a different form, unless you already have a valid ESTA.

As well as applying for an ESTA ahead of travel, make sure you also have worldwide travel insurance that includes the USA. Medical treatment across the pond can be hugely expensive. You won’t be able to access free healthcare like the NHS and there’s no GHIC arrangement in place like with many European countries.

How do I get an ESTA?

To apply for an ESTA, all you need to do is visit the official ESTA application page, where you’ll be asked a few questions to determine your eligibility. Avoid third-party sites, as they’re likely to charge you an extra fee to process your application – it’s not necessary and you don't want to be paying any more than you need to.

You must apply for an ESTA online, and you’ll need to have:

  • A valid payment method for your application (Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover – including JCB and Diners Club – or PayPal)
  • A valid passport
  • Your contact information (including emergency contact details)
  • Your most recent employment information.

You won’t need to print out your ESTA to show at border control, but we do recommend you keep a copy for your records, just in case.   

How long does it take to get an ESTA?

You should apply for your ESTA at least 72 hours before you leave for the USA.

Once you’ve filled out the online application, you could be told within seconds whether your ESTA application has been accepted. Or you may have to wait a little longer while extra checks are carried out.

It’s sensible to apply for an ESTA before you book your travel tickets. That’s because you won’t be left out of pocket if, for any reason, your application is rejected. If you’re booking through a travel agent, they might organise your ESTAs for you to save you the trouble.

It’s important to understand that an ESTA doesn’t give you an automatic right to enter the USA. It simply allows you to travel there. Border protection officers make the final decision on whether to let you into the country or not. While they may look intimidating, they’ll generally let most people in if they’ve passed the ESTA checks.

How much does an ESTA cost?

One application for an ESTA will cost you $14 (roughly £11**). So, if you’re travelling as a family of four, it will set you back $56 (about £45**) in total.

**Exchange rate correct as of May 2022

How long will my ESTA last?

Once you’ve successfully applied for an ESTA, it will be valid for up to two years (or until your passport expires). You can visit the USA as many times as you like within those two years, as long as your stay is less than 90 days per trip.

Why could my ESTA application be declined?

There are various reasons why your application could be declined, but these are the most common:

  • You have a criminal record.
  • You stayed for longer in the USA than was authorised during an earlier visit.
  • In the past you’ve claimed to be a visitor in the USA, but took part in unauthorised work.
  • You’ve been denied entry into the USA in the past.
  • You’ve previously answered a Visa Waiver Program eligibility question incorrectly.
  • The passport you’re using has been reported lost or stolen.
  • You’ve travelled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen since 1 March 2011.

What can I do if my ESTA application is denied?

If you’re not authorised to travel to America on an ESTA, you’ll need to apply for a non-immigrant visa at a US Embassy or Consulate. This may be an issue if you need to travel straight away as you can’t be sure that you’ll get an urgent appointment to arrange a visa. It’s always best to make sure you allow plenty of time to apply for your ESTA if you can.

If you believe you’ve been wrongly denied, you can go to the DHS TRIP site and file a redress request. But this might take time to resolve too.

What else do I need for travel to the USA?

Along with your ESTA, make sure you have:

  • A valid British passport
  • Your travel tickets and accommodation documents
  • Adequate travel insurance that specifically covers the USA (not all worldwide policies do)
  • US dollars or a prepaid travel card.

Then, you’re good to go.

Frequently asked questions

How far in advance should I apply for my ESTA?

Although there aren’t any hard and fast rules about how many days in advance you need to apply for ESTA, it’s recommended that you do so at least 72 hours before you intend to travel. It’s best to give yourself even more time if you think there’s a chance your application could be rejected.

What questions will I be asked on my ESTA application?

The ESTA questions are designed to filter out anyone considered a security risk. You’ll be asked for your:

  • Passport details
  • Birthplace and date of birth
  • Additional citizenships
  • Parents’ names
  • Contact details
  • Work details
  • Travel details.

You’ll also need to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to eligibility questions. These risk-profile you and will ask queries like whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime and whether you’ve ever distributed illegal drugs. Answering yes to any of these questions means your application could be denied.

Do children need ESTAs?

Yes, any non-US citizen travelling to the States from the UK will need an ESTA, including children of any age. A parent or guardian will need to fill out the ESTA application form on behalf of a child if they’re under the age of 16. Once the ESTA has been approved, it will be linked to the child’s passport.

Do I need an ESTA to travel to Hawaii?

Yes, despite Hawaii being a long way from the mainland, it’s still a US state and the same rules apply. You’ll also need an ESTA if you’re travelling to US territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands.

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