The ESTA is an electronic system that can be used to determine whether a person qualifies to travel to the United States using the Visa Waiver Programme. ESTA was put into place following the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act, and it applies to people who are traveling to the United States by air or by sea. It does not determine whether someone is actually admissible to the US – that is down to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who will perform additional checks upon the person’s arrival. All the ESTA does is determine whether someone is eligible to travel in the first place.
In most cases, applying for an ESTA is a simple process that does not take long. The process is completed online, and approvals will typically come through in a matter of minutes or hours, however people are advised to start the application process early, even before they purchase airline tickets because there could be many reasons why approval may take longer, even for someone who is eligible to travel. A case of mistaken identity, for example, could hold up an application.
Once someone has completed the ESTA and has been approved, they can re-use that authorisation for two years, however they may still be asked to complete the older I-94W form in some cases. Airlines are required to check that the ESTA has been completed, and will be fined if they allow someone who was not approved to travel to the United States.
There is a fee of $14 to apply, of which $10 is used by the Corporation for Travel Promotion, while the remaining $4 goes to the CBP to cover admin costs. The charge has been criticised by some, including the European Parliament, who feel that it is simply being used to fund advertisements for tourism to the US.
It is important to note that this $14 fee is the only fee that people should be paying to get the authorisation. There are some sites that have been set up that offer ‘ESTA Application Services’ but these are not authorised by the U.S. government, and if someone were to apply through one of those sites they would unneccessarily delay their application, and could be giving their personal details to someone who would use them for fraudulent purposes. The application process is not complex, and there is no reason for anyone to use a third party service.