One of the most common questions I get is: What kind of visa do I need to travel to the USA? Luckily, a lot of countries – including almost all European countries – are part of the automated electronic travel system introduced by the U.S. in 2009 which is known as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This is a system that allows the U.S. authorities to screen passengers before they travel to the USA and allows travelers to enter the U.S. without a visa, but under the Visa Waiver Program instead.
This post is for everyone who lives in a country that is included in the Visa Waiver Program, and I am sharing with you everything you need to know about the ESTA: who needs it, how to apply for it, and which documents and travel information you need to apply for it.
ESTA vs. Visa
For the U.S. government, ESTA is basically a way to filter out people who might be a threat to the country and its residents. For citizens of the participating countries who want to visit the U.S., it makes travel to the USA much easier, since they don’t need to go through the lengthy visa application process which involves a visit to a U.S. embassy. The ESTA is also much cheaper than a visa.
Note that if you are planning to stay in the USA for longer than 90 days, you will still have to apply for a visa, even if the country you’re a citizen of is part of the ESTA Visa Waiver program.
Who needs an ESTA?
Everyone arriving to the U.S. by air or on a cruise ship is required to have a valid ESTA. It doesn’t matter if you are traveling for leisure (tourism) or business – without an ESTA, entry to the U.S. will not be permitted. You won’t even be allowed to board your flight – and the airlines are very strict about this.
If your country is not part of the Visa Waiver Program (see below for the full list of participating nations), you have to apply for a regular visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
Who can get an ESTA?
38 countries are currently participating in the Visa Waiver Program – almost every European nation, several Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand, and only one South American nation, Chile. Here is the full list:
- The following European nations: Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom
- Australia & New Zealand
- The following Asian countries: Brunei, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan
How to apply for an ESTA
You have to apply for an ESTA at least 72 hours before traveling to the U.S. – but it is recommended to fill out your ESTA-application as soon as you book your flights, in case there is a delay with your application.
It is very easy to fill out an ESTA-application – the process is done entirely online and doesn’t take longer than fifteen minutes. Just make sure you have all required documents and information at hand when filling out the application online.
What you need to apply for an ESTA
- A valid passport
- Credit card to make the payment
- Personal information
- Travel details (including a point of contact in the U.S., which can be the hotel/Airbnb/friend’s house you’ll be staying at – you do have to provide an address though)
In addition to these details, you’ll need to answer a few questions about things such as contagious sicknesses you’ve had, possible convictions of crimes, previous visas and visits to the U.S. and visits to countries on the U.S. watch list (such as Iran or Syria).
Do you need an ESTA when you transit in the US?
Yes, you still need an ESTA, even if you only spend a couple of hours in transit in a U.S. airport. But the ESTA visa is just a formality, so if a flight from Europe to South America transiting in Miami saves you a few hundred dollars compared to a flight with a transit elsewhere, it’s usually still worth going for that option.
The only times the ESTA is not required is if you arriving by ferry from British Columbia, Canada, to Washington State (Seattle, for example), or by land from anywhere in Canada or Mexico.
How long is an ESTA valid?
The ESTA is valid for two years, which means you can take an indefinite number of trips* within two years of having your ESTA approved without having to apply for a new one.
*within the visa regulations – usually for a maximum of 90 days
If you don’t travel to the U.S. regularly, and you’ve gotten approved for an ESTA in the past, make sure to check if your ESTA is still valid when you plan a trip.
The ESTA also becomes invalid if your passport expires / if you get a new passport. That means that you have to apply for a new ESTA if you get a new passport, even if you are still within the two-year validity period.
Other things that make an ESTA invalid are: change of name (for example when you get married), change of gender, obtaining of a new / an additional citizenship.
Any other questions about the ESTA? Feel free to leave them in the comments below!