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A guide to ESTA visa waivers for travelling to America

If you’re travelling to the USA, you’ll need an ESTA visa waiver as well as your passport. Here’s our guide to everything ESTA, including how to get one and how much an ESTA costs.

 

If you’re travelling to the USA, you’ll need an ESTA visa waiver as well as your passport. Here’s our guide to everything ESTA, including how to get one and how much an ESTA costs.

 

Written by
Anna McEntee
Home, pet and travel insurance expert
Last Updated
26 JUNE 2023
5 min read
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What is an ESTA?

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

An ESTA visa waiver is an online form you fill in before you travel to make sure 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’ll be in the States for more than 90 days, or you plan to live and work there, you’ll need to apply for a visa instead.

Who can apply for an ESTA?

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

Even if you’re only passing through the USA, you’ll still need an ESTA if you’re travelling by plane or ship. If you’re entering over land – perhaps from Canada – you’ll need to fill in a different form, unless you already have a valid ESTA.

As well as applying for an ESTA visa waiver ahead of travel, make sure you also have worldwide travel insurance that includes the USA. Medical treatment across the pond is the most expensive in the world. 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.

Customers with pre-existing medical conditions

If you have a serious health condition, your travel insurance is likely to be more expensive. Whatever happens, don’t lie to an insurance provider, because this could mean your claim is rejected. When you declare any medical conditions on our website, we’ll only show you quotes from insurance providers who will cover them, with no exclusions.

If your condition is more serious, MoneyHelper has a directory of insurance providers who may be able to provide quotes over the phone. You can call them on 0800 138 7777.

How to get an ESTA

To apply for an ESTA, visit the official ESTA application page, where you’ll be asked a few questions to determine your eligibility. Avoid third-party sites, which might charge extra fees to process your application. It’s not necessary and you don’t want to pay more than you need to.

You must apply for an ESTA online. To do so, you’ll need:

  • A valid payment method (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 don’t need to print out your ESTA to show at border control, but we recommend keeping a copy for your records, just in case.

Passport requirements for an ESTA

To qualify for an ESTA, you need to have a machine-readable e-passport with a digital chip containing your biometric information. If you don’t have one, you’ll need to get one before you can apply for your ESTA.

How long does it take to get an ESTA?

Make sure you apply for your ESTA visa waiver 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 application has been accepted. Or you may have to wait a little longer while extra checks are carried out.

If you’re wondering when to apply for an ESTA, it’s sensible to do so before you book your flights. That way you won’t be left out of pocket if your application is rejected. If you book your trip through a travel agent, they might organise your ESTA for you to save you the trouble.

Remember, 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. While they may look intimidating, they’ll 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 $21 (roughly £17**). So, if you’re travelling as a family of four, the cost of the ESTA will set you back $84 (about £68**) in total.

**Exchange rate correct as of June 2023.

How long does an ESTA last?

Once you have your ESTA visa waiver, it’s valid for two years (or until your passport expires). You can visit the USA as many times as you like during 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 your application could be declined, the most common ones being:

  • You have a criminal record
  • You stayed in the USA for longer than authorised on a previous 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 problematic if you’re travelling straight away as you may not be able to get an urgent appointment. It’s always best to 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, you’ll need:

  • A valid British passport
  • Your travel tickets and accommodation document
  • US dollars or a prepaid travel card.

Plus, it’s a good idea to get travel insurance that covers the USA (not all worldwide policies do).

Frequently asked questions

What questions will I be asked on my ESTA application?

The ESTA eligibility 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 a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. These ask, among other questions, whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime and if you’ve ever distributed illegal drugs.

Answering yes to any of these questions could mean your application is denied.

Do children need ESTAs?

Yes. Any non-US citizen travelling to the States from the UK needs an ESTA. This includes children of any age.

If you have children under 16, you’ll need to fill out an ESTA application on their behalf. Once the ESTA is approved, it will be linked to the child’s passport.

Do you need to print an ESTA?

You won’t need to show a print out of your ESTA when you travel. It will be sent to your airline automatically. But the US authorities recommend you print it for your records.

Do I need an ESTA to travel to Hawaii?

Yes. Hawaii might be a long way from the mainland, but 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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Anna McEntee - Insurance expert

Anna’s all about delivering fantastic insurance products at a great price. Value is the most important thing for Anna, as she cuts through the jargon and finds what’s most important and worth your hard-earned money.

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