The ESTA is an electronic authorisation process that the United States government requires people to go through before they can travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Programme. The application form is quite short and simple, and it is simply a form of identity verification. When it was first introduced, it was free to apply for, but as of September 8th 2010, the U.S. government has introduced a $14 fee for the authorisation. This fee funds the Corporation for Travel Promotion, and also covers the CBP’s administrative costs.
The ESTA is valid for two years, and if you apply for it through the official website, then all you will need to pay is the $14 fee. There are some third party websites which offer application services and charge higher fees, but these are not official services, and there is no benefit to using them. Indeed, it is not a good idea to apply for an ESTA using one of those services, for several reasons:
1) Wasted Money
The third party services do not do anything beyond take your details and then fill out the form for you. They cannot get your authorisation approved any more quickly, and they cannot offer you any additional support if things go wrong.
2) Slower Process
By using a third party service, you slow the process down because you are giving your details to someone else who needs to process them, and if there is an issue, then you have added an extra step in the chain to deal with it. The process would go much more quickly if you simply filled out the official form yourself.
3) Risk of Identity Theft
By giving your details to a third party, you run the risk of identity theft. The third party sites are not regulated by the government. Some of them truly are just attempting to make money by being an intermediary to ‘support’ people who are nervous about filling out th application form, but some may be collecting people’s details for less respectable purposes. You have no way of knowing who will see the data or how it will be handled.
The official application form carries a $14 fee, and in most cases approval comes through quite quickly. Apply early so that you can get help if there are issues, and enjoy the peace of mind of knowing you are clear to travel.