Traveling to the United States without a visa is possible for visitors from 41 countries with ESTA. We explain the electronic travel authorization for America and what you need to pay attention to when applying for ESTA.
ESTA (short for "Electronic System for Travel Authorization") was introduced by the US government to verify through a fully automated database check that travelers meet the current entry requirements of the USA and do not pose a risk to the United States.
Since the introduction of ESTA in 2008, you no longer need a US visa (e.g., visitor visa or student visa) from the embassies or consulates but can also travel completely "paperless" with ESTA. Thanks to the automated ESTA process, the electronic travel authorization is easy, cheap, and quick to obtain.
ESTA is available for all USA travelers who are citizens of a country participating in the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The following countries are currently part of the VWP:
|ESTA eligible countries|
1 The validity period of an ESTA authorization for travelers from Brunei has been reduced from two years to one year, effective July 6th, 2023.
2 The validity period of an ESTA authorization for Hungarian travelers has been shortened from two years to one year, effective August 1st, 2023. In addition, Hungarians are now only allowed to enter the US once per ESTA and also require a Hungarian birth certificate for the ESTA process.
To be able to travel to the USA with ESTA, you must meet some more requirements in addition to your citizenship in a Visa Waiver country. These include:
If you do not meet the ESTA requirements listed here, you must apply for a US visa instead of an ESTA for your trip to America.
If you are traveling to the USA with minors, you must also submit a separate ESTA application for them. Therefore, children and babies traveling with you to the USA also need a biometric passport.
If your child does not have a biometric passport, you can instead apply for a visa (e.g., the B-2 visitor visa) for a common USA vacation.
The US government maintains a list of countries that belong to the so-called "Six-Month Club." Travelers from these countries only need a passport validity until the end of their stay, while USA visitors from all other countries need passports valid for at least six months beyond the end of their trip.
An ESTA approval can be obtained for a fee between $ 21 (for the simplest option on the US government's website) and around € 50 (including additional securities and in-depth data verification by an ESTA agency).
This makes the ESTA cost significantly lower than a US visa, which can cost between $ 185 and several thousand US dollars, depending on the purpose. Additionally, the ESTA process eliminates additional costs for submitting evidence documents, including certified translations.
With ESTA approval, you can take a vacation for up to 90 days in the USA, visit friends and relatives, receive medical treatment, or participate in business events such as trade shows and conferences.
Within the validity period of two years, you may enter the USA as an ESTA holder as many times as you wish, but you must be able to prove at all times that you do not have the intention to immigrate. If you enter the USA too frequently within the two-year ESTA validity, it may lead to inquiries by US border officials.
Although business trips for conferences, contract negotiations, and meetings are allowed with ESTA, you are not officially allowed to enter the USA for job searching, enroll in studies that are credited towards your degree, or attend professional-level courses. Before traveling to the USA for professional or continuing education purposes, it is essential to research the available visa options such as F-1, J-1, or M-1 visas.
Entering the USA requires an ESTA approval or a US visa, even if you are only stopping briefly for transit or en route to another country in the United States.
This ESTA requirement for transit does not apply to Green Card holders and US citizens.
For most travelers, the ESTA authorization is valid for two years, or until the end of the validity of their respective passports, and they can travel to the USA as often as they wish for up to 90 days at a time within this period.
Exceptions apply to travelers from Brunei and Hungary, whose ESTA authorizations are only valid for one year. Travelers from Hungary also need a separate ESTA application for each entry into the US.
The main differences between ESTA and a visa for entry into the USA are:
|Residence Permit for the USA||ESTA||
|Application||Online||In person at the US Embassy or Consulate|
|Maximum period of stay||90 days||Depending on visa|
|Validity||2 years*||>Depending on visa, up to 10 years|
|Waiting periods||Maximum 72 hours||Several weeks or months (depending on visa and workload at US embassies and consulates)|
|Documents||Biometric passport (e-passport)||Depending on visa: passport, passport photos, consulate or embassy appointment invitation, financial proof, employment contracts, letters from universities, police clearance certificates, certificates and other proof documents including certified translations|
|Permitted activities||Vacation, visiting friends and relatives, medical treatment, business appointments, meetings, conferences, transit||Depending on the visa: study, work, exchange year, summer job, family companionship or others|
|Costs||Between $ 21 and about € 50||From $ 185|
*ESTA permits for travelers from Brunei and Hungary have a shortened validity period of one year instead of two
The ESTA system automatically checks your eligibility for entry into the United States based on comparing your data with various national and international databases. To enable the digital quick check, you must provide several details when applying for ESTA. These include:
The ESTA form also asks for your social media accounts. While providing this information is voluntary, it is generally recommended to avoid delays due to manual additional checks.
You can add additional individuals traveling with you to your ESTA application. However, when submitting an ESTA group application, you must gather and complete the required ESTA data for each individual traveler, such as passport number, email address, and birthdate.
The ESTA security questions cover information about your health, any legal conflicts, prior convictions, drug abuse, any intent to immigrate, plans to work in the US, and your travel and visa history.
If you answer "yes" to any security question, you will not be granted ESTA approval. However, this does not mean you cannot travel to the US. In this case, you can apply for a US visa instead.
If you are concerned that your personal history or health may lead to an ESTA rejection, it is recommended to apply for an ESTA at least two months before your departure date in case you need to apply for a visa.
Be aware that providing false or misleading information on your ESTA application can result in being denied entry to the US and lead to criminal charges and a permanent ban on entering the US.
Applying for an ESTA online will take about 15 minutes. If you are applying for multiple people, allow 15 minutes per person. Have your passport, email address, travel dates, and the contact information of your employer (if applicable) and first accommodation in the US ready.
After initial email verification, fill out the ESTA application. Following the maximum three-day review of your application, you will receive your ESTA approval to your email address.
The processing time for an ESTA application typically takes at most 72 hours. However, in rare cases, there may be delays, so it is generally recommended to apply for an ESTA about two weeks before departure.
If you want to be on the safe side and have enough time in case of an ESTA rejection to apply for a visa, it's best to apply for an ESTA as soon as you start planning your trip. The two-year validity of the ESTA approval means that delays in your travel plans do not pose a risk.
Correcting errors in an ESTA application can only be done to a limited extent. However, false, incomplete, or ambiguous information in your ESTA application will likely result in rejection and a permanent block in the ESTA system. Therefore, it is important to carefully review all the information provided before submitting your ESTA application.
It is important to ensure that the personal information entered matches the information in your passport. If you discover an error in the passport or biographical information shortly after submitting your ESTA application, you can submit a new application to avoid rejection.
Other errors, such as incorrect answers to security questions or incorrect contact information, can be corrected or updated shortly after submission in the ESTA status inquiry.
You can change your first overnight address in the US and your email address as many times as you want within the two years of the ESTA's validity.
Your ESTA authorization will be digitally linked to your passport. Therefore, once you receive a new passport, you must also submit a new ESTA application. If you show up at the US border with a new passport but an old ESTA authorization, you will be denied entry to the US.
If there are any changes in your biographical information after you receive your ESTA authorization, then you must submit a new ESTA application. Possible occasions for this:
Some events, such as a court conviction, may also require you to apply for a visa instead of an ESTA.
The ESTA system administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) normally ensures that an ESTA application is only denied if there are good reasons for doing so (e.g., a law enforcement or security risk). In these cases, the applicant is irrevocably blocked from the ESTA process and may only travel to the US on a visa in the future.
Generally, you will not learn the reasons for an ESTA denial, nor will you be able to correct the problem by reapplying for ESTA. The easiest way to obtain entry clearance to the US after an ESTA application has been denied is usually through a US visa.
If your ESTA application is denied in error, you can use the DHS Travel Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP). A link to the TRIP website will be provided to you with the notification of your rejection.
Upon arrival at the airport in the USA, you will initially be in the passport control queue with all other passengers as an ESTA traveler. However, as a Visa Waiver participant, you can shorten the US entry process with automatic passport control.
It is best to familiarize yourself with all the steps of entering the USA before your flight so that you are well-prepared, for example, for the interview with the US border officials, the passport check at the APC terminal (Automated Passport Control), the submission of fingerprints or the customs inspection.
You should also be well aware of the entry and import regulations for the US, as there are strict rules for bringing food, animal products, medicines, and high-value goods. Take care of the digital customs form in time and pack your carry-on and checked baggage according to regulations.
The US entry regulations also include necessary vaccinations for a USA trip and various security check forms that you need to go through before and during your trip.
Whether you are allowed to cross the border to the United States is not decided by an approved visa or your ESTA permit, but always by the border personnel at the airport in the United States. Therefore, have all travel documents ready and answer all questions from the officials accurately and truthfully.