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Frequently Asked Questions about the Visa Waiver Program and ESTA

By December 22, 2022Immigration

As described in our earlier post here, the Visa Waiver Program (or VWP) allows those who are citizens of a country that is part of the Visa Waiver Program to come to the United States for up to 90 days at a time for tourism or business purposes without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. consulate. The VWP is a great option for many visitors to the U.S. who prefer not to apply for a visa.

In our earlier post, we shared general information about the VWP and ESTA. In this post, we cover a number of frequently asked questions that arise from those who are using or planning to use VWP. Please note that this post assumes that the traveler to the U.S. is relying on the Visa Waiver Program – in other words, they do not have another option to enter the U.S. such as a visa or by being a visa-exempt Canadian.

What is ESTA, and how is it different from the Visa Waiver Program?

ESTA is the acronym for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It is the system that determines an applicant’s eligibility to travel to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program. The applicant first submits an ESTA application. If it is approved, they are able to travel to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program. Colloquially, many individuals refer to travel on the Visa Waiver Program as “travel on ESTA.”

ESTA was introduced to increase the security measures of the Visa Waiver Program. In addition to determining whether the applicant meets basic eligibility requirements, ESTA specifically screens applicants to determine whether they present a law enforcement or security risk.

Is ESTA a visa?

No. ESTA allows an individual to visit the U.S. without a visa. As a result, an individual who visits the U.S. on the VWP is strictly limited to a stay of 90 days. They are not eligible to extend or change their status once they are inside the U.S.

How long is ESTA approval valid?

ESTA approval is usually granted for two years, or until the applicant’s passport expires (whichever is earlier). During this period, the individual can make multiple visits to the United States.

How early can I apply for ESTA approval, and do I need specific travel plans?

While keeping in mind that ESTA approval is only valid for a maximum of two years, in general the earlier you apply for ESTA approval, the better. The U.S. government recommends that individuals apply for ESTA approval as soon as they start planning a trip to the United States.

Fortunately, the applicant does not need specific travel plans to complete the ESTA application. They are allowed to enter “unknown” when asked for their destination. The applicant can update this information once the travel plans are finalized, but this is not required.

How soon before my trip can I apply for ESTA approval?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recommends that individuals apply for ESTA approval at least 72 hours before they travel to the U.S. However, visitors are allowed to apply any time prior to boarding their flight, and a decision on the ESTA application is usually provided immediately.

I am a dual national and have two passports. I received ESTA approval on only one of the passports. Can I travel to the U.S. on the passport I did not use when applying for ESTA approval?

No. You must receive ESTA approval on the specific passport that you will use to travel to the United States.

Similarly, if you receive a new passport, you must re-apply for ESTA approval with the new passport information.

I received ESTA approval. Does this mean that I can enter the U.S.?

Not necessarily. An individual seeking entry into the U.S. is reviewed twice – first when applying for a visa or for participation in the Visa Waiver Program, and a second time at the moment they seek entry at the port of entry. Just as a visa gives the individual the ability to board a flight or carrier and then to request entry into the United States at a port of entry, ESTA approval gives the individual the ability to travel to the U.S. and to request entry into the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program. Once the traveler arrives at the port of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will make an independent determination as to whether the individual is eligible to enter the U.S.

I am a national of a Visa Waiver Program country, but I will be flying to the U.S. from a country that is not on the list of Visa Waiver Program countries. Do I still need to apply for ESTA approval?

Yes. Those who are visiting the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program must receive ESTA approval, regardless of which country they will be entering the U.S. from.

I already have a visa. Can I visit the U.S. on ESTA?

Yes. If you already have a valid visa, you have the option of traveling to the U.S. on that visa or applying for and traveling on ESTA. In other words, having a valid visa does not preclude you from traveling on ESTA.

In addition to the 48 continental states, Alaska, and Hawaii, where else can I travel on ESTA?

ESTA allows the visitor to travel to the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Do children also need to apply for ESTA approval?

Yes. Children, regardless of their age, must also apply for ESTA approval if they will travel to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program.

I am a national of a Visa Waiver Program country but will only be transiting through the U.S. en route to another country. Do I still need to apply for ESTA approval?

Yes. Those who are simply transiting through the U.S. en route to another country and plan to use the Visa Waiver Program will need to apply for ESTA approval. On the ESTA application, they can list their final destination as their “Address While in the United States,” and they can also enter “In Transit” as an additional explanation.

When do I need to re-apply for ESTA?

A new ESTA approval is required when:

  • The initial ESTA approval expires,
  • The visitor receives a new passport,
  • The visitor changes their name or gender,
  • The visitor’s country of citizenship changes, or
  • Any of the visitor’s previous responses to the ESTA application questions have changed.

Note that one of the questions on the ESTA application asks about any visa denials. As a result, if you have ESTA approval and then apply for a visa that is denied, you must submit a new ESTA application following the denial.

My ESTA approval is expiring while I am inside the U.S. Do I need to re-apply for ESTA approval?

No. You are not required to maintain ESTA approval while inside the U.S. However, you will need to re-apply for ESTA approval before the time you seek re-entry into the United States.

My ESTA application was denied. What are my options?

If your ESTA application was denied, you must apply for a visa at a consulate in order to visit the U.S. The B-1 business visitor visa and the B-2 tourist visa are common options for those seeking to temporarily visit the U.S.

Is there any way to learn why my ESTA application was denied?

It can be very difficult to get any information as to why an ESTA application was denied. One option is to file a request with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP). This option does not consistently yield helpful results and is not guaranteed by the government to resolve issues with VWP or the ESTA application.

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