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When I was 14, I won a trip to the Rocky Mountains on French radio. Not only was it my first trip on my own, but it was also my first time going to the USA. The week in Colorado was one of my most memorable holidays ever. Thinking back, it really seems like the 1990s were simpler times. No health and safety forms to sign, no stringent airport security, no ESTA visa to get in advance, no toiletries in a plastic bag… I even remember people smoking on the plane! It’s like another dimension when you think about it.
I am grateful my mum allowed me to take part in this amazing experience but now I’m a parent myself, I am also amazed she was happy to leave me at the airport in Paris with a bunch of 14 to 24-year-olds and no ‘proper’ adult to help us get to Denver. I remember having to fill in a piece of card on the plane before we landed. It’s all changed now. Before you travel to the USA, you have to apply for an ESTA visa.
What’s an ESTA visa?
Even though I refer to it as an ESTA visa, an ESTA is not actually a visa, but for some reason, a lot of people (me included!) still call it the ‘ESTA visa’. It’s an addition to the Visa Waiver Program, quite often shortened to VWP, that’s operated since the mid-1980s.
Its full name is Electronic System for Travel Authorisation. It allows you to visit the USA for a business trip or holiday for up to 90 days without having to apply for a visa. Having an ESTA visa doesn’t guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the United States, as the final decision is up to Customs and Border Protection officers at the point of entry.
Why do I need an ESTA to travel to the USA?
ESTA visas have been operating since 2009. They were created by the US Department of Homeland Security after the events of 9/11, to make the border security process easier and smoother for eligible travellers arriving in the USA. Therefore, if you come from a low risk country, you can enter the United States with less stringent measures than if you came from a high risk country. The UK and all countries in the European Union are considered low risk.
Is my ESTA just valid for one trip?
You can actually use your ESTA visa more than once. It’s valid for 730 days (two years) or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.
Can I just renew my ESTA once it’s expired?
No, you will need to reapply.
Does everyone travelling to the USA need an ESTA visa?
If you arrive by boat or plane, you do need an ESTA. If you arrive by car (through Canada for example, you do not). If you are only passing through the USA (e.g. transit), you still need an ESTA.
How do you get an ESTA?
The only way to obtain your ESTA travel authorisation for the USA is online. You can get your ESTA for $14 on the official ESTA website.
For £29.95 per person, you can also use the ESTA form by e-visa.co.uk. It is all done online, takes 5 minutes at most and you will get your ESTA visa within 1 to 72 hours. The quick and easy application form includes handy explanations for each input field as and error-recognition software will ensure you get it all right when filling it in. All online applications are manually checked to further reduce the risk to get it wrong. Best of all, they give full refunds to any applications that are rejected, for whatever reason!
How do I know my application has been successful?
The ESTA application process will give you one of three responses:
– Authorisation Approved: All good, you can travel to the United States;
– Travel Not Authorised: You have not been granted an ESTA and will have to apply for a traditional visa at the US Embassy or Consulate;
– Authorisation Pending: More time is needed before a decision can be made.
Because your application is not guaranteed to be successful, it’s wise to apply before you pay for your trip.
If I ever go to the United States again, I would love to take my children to a ranch in Colorado so they can experience something similar to my trip in my teenage years. I will never forget the ranch, spending a week with real cowboys and cowgirls, horse riding everyday and camping in the magnificent Rockies.
Have you been to the USA recently? Did you find it easy to get your ESTA visa?
Disclosure: This is a paid blog post in partnership with e-visa.co.uk but all copy and opinions are my own.