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Visa Waiver Program (VWP) / ESTA

Since 1986, citizens of certain countries are no longer required to have a visa to enter the United States. Citizens of these countries now have the possibility to travel to the USA under the so-called Visa Waiver Program (VWP)/ESTA. With an ESTA, tourists are allowed to stay in the USA for a maximum of 90 days a year or transit through the U.S. to another country. The following provides you with answers to the most frequently asked ESTA questions.

Table of contents
What is ESTA?

What requirements do I have to meet for an ESTA?

Who cannot apply for an ESTA?

How do I get an ESTA?

When do I need to apply for an ESTA?

How often can I enter the USA with a valid ESTA?

How much time must I spend outside of the USA before I can enter again?

Can I stay the maximum 90 days every time I enter the USA? 

Filling out an ESTA correctly

How do I find out if my ESTA has been authorized?

Giving social media data in ESTA, do I have to? 

How much does an ESTA cost?

ESTA fraud warning

How long is my ESTA valid for?

ESTA application denied

Reasons why ESTA applications get denied

What to do if your ESTA is denied

ESTA - Guaranteed entry?

How can I change or update my ESTA?

Can I renew my ESTA and stay longer than 90 days? 

 

WHAT IS ESTA?

On January 12th, 2009, U.S. authorities introduced a new electronic travel authorization program called the Visa Waiver Program. Since then, citizens of participating Visa Waiver countries traveling to the USA can apply for a visa-free travel authorization (ESTA) under the Visa Waiver Program prior to boarding a plane or ship to the U.S. In practice, this means all VWP travelers (including babies and children) are required to fill out an online application form and give personal data. Frequently, applicants have difficulties determining whether they can travel under the VWP or if they must apply for a visa. Due to varying factors (e.g. travel frequency or length and purpose of the stay), each individual case must be reviewed separately to determine what the best options are for each traveler. Of course, we will be happy to advise you.

Image of man with laptop filling out his esta application

To a very limited extent the VWP can also be used for business travel ("Business Visa Waiver"), e.g. fairs, meetings, conferences etc. All business travel beyond that, such as maintenance, installation, consulting, setting up a U.S. company, or gaining employment, is no longer covered by the program, even if the stay does not exceed 90 days. In those cases, it is advisable to apply for a B-1/B-2 Visa.

What requirements do I need to meet for an ESTA?

Citizens of the following countries can travel visa-free to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program:

Australia Iceland Portugal
Austria Ireland San Marino
Belgium Italy Singapore
Brunei Japan Slovakia
Chile Latvia Slovenia
Czech Republic Liechtenstein South Korea
Denmark Lithuania Spain
Estonia Luxembourg Sweden
Finland Malta Switzerland
France Monaco Taiwan
Germany Netherlands United Kingdom
Greece New Zealand  

 

Principally, the citizens of countries on this list can travel visa-free to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program. There are, however, certain conditions for each country that must be met in order to receive a travel authorization, such as having a passport valid for a certain amount of time. Countries that belong to the Six Month Club, for example, are allowed to have a passport that is valid up until the date of departure. On the other hand, some countries are required to have passports valid for at least 6 months after departure.   

Under the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015” enacted on April 1, 2016, all applicants are required to have a biometric passport in addition to a valid ESTA when traveling to the USA. The so-called e-passport contains a microprocessor chip that stores the traveler’s biometric data. 

Who cannot apply for an ESTA?

According to ESTA regulations there are groups of people who are excluded from applying for a travel authorization (ESTA) under the Visa Waiver Program. These people traveling to the USA are required to apply for an appropriate U.S. visa. The following groups of people cannot apply for an ESTA:

  • Citizens of VWP countries who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya since March 2011. Only diplomats and military personnel are not affected;
  • Citizens of VWP countries who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria;
  • People who have already been denied entry into the USA (at the border) or have been deported out of the United States;
  • People who have committed certain offences or have been arrested or previously convicted of a crime (each case should be individually reviewed);
  • People who have already broken USA entry requirements (e.g. have overstayed an ESTA or visa);
  • People who have a communicable disease

How do I get an ESTA

The electronic travel authorization (ESTA) can only be applied for online. The application must be completed and sent through the U.S. government website. Our consultants are here to help if you should have questions. If your application is denied, you will need to apply for a U.S. visa and this process takes time. Keep this in mind when applying for an ESTA as well as the following ESTA requirements:

  • All family members who are traveling with you to the USA must have a valid passport (e-pass) that meets U.S. requirements.
  • In the form, you must give your personal data and truthfully answer a series of security questions. 

When Do I need to Apply for an ESTA?

To be on the safe side, you should apply for your ESTA as soon as possible. ESTA applications can be submitted any time prior to travel. As soon as you know your travel dates you should fill out the application form for yourself and for every family member. The following should be considered:

  • Ideally, you should apply for an ESTA 6-8 weeks prior to your trip to the USA
  • An ESTA should be applied for 72 hours before departing at the latest 
  • If an ESTA is denied, it is only possible to enter the USA with an approved U.S. visa

How often can I enter the USA with a valid ESTA? 

In principle, you are allowed to enter the USA as many times as you like within the two-year period that your ESTA is valid. Having said that, a valid ESTA does not automatically mean that the border officer will let you through. If the border officer believes that a traveler intends to emigrate and stay in the USA, then they can refuse entry. 

How much time must I spend outside of the USA before I can enter again? 

There are no mandatory requirements for the amount of time you must wait between your USA trips. It is important, however, to be aware of the fact that the border officer always has the last say in the matter. If the border officer has the feeling that you have entered the USA too often and suspects that you intend to stay in the USA, they may refuse you entry into the country. Therefore, a rule of thumb: It’s better to stay longer outside of the USA than inside. 

Can I stay the maximum 90 days every time I enter the USA? 

In general, every traveler is allowed to stay a maximum of 90 days in the USA. There are, however, a few special regulations like when traveling to and from Canada and Mexico. It is often the case when reentering the USA from Canada or Mexico that your 90 days will not be renewed. The date of departure in your passport remains the same and you are not “given back” the days you were outside of the USA. In our case example (LINK), we examine the situation in more detail. Furthermore, the border officers once again have the power to make this decision. If the border officer believes that you have traveled to the USA too often within a short time, the number of days you can may be shortened. Therefore, pay attention to the departure date stamped into your passport so you know how many days you have.

filling out an ESTA correctly

Find answers to the most frequently asked ESTA questions below:

1) What is the National Identification Number?
The National ID is a number displayed on an identification card issued by your country of citizenship. In France, for example, this national identity card is called “Carte nationale d’identite” and it includes your personal data as well as your photo. You will find the National Identification Number on this document (it is not your passport number). If you do not have a valid identification card, then enter “DOES NOT APPLY” or “UNKNOWN” in the ESTA form.

2) What should I do if I have more than one first name?
Please be aware that only your first name should be entered in this field. The first name given must be the exact name given in your passport. For example: Only enter Maria even if your name is Maria Helen Sofia.

3) What should I do if I have dual citizenship?
Dual citizenships must be given in the ESTA. You are not required to have a second valid passport for the country where you hold dual citizenship, but you must enter the country name in the form. You may enter “DOES NOT APPLY” or “DOES NOT EXIST” in the field if you do not have a valid second passport.

4) What do I do if my flight details change?
Since November 2014, flight details can no longer be changed in an already approved ESTA. This means that you cannot update your arrival or departure ports if you once again enter the USA. Currently, it is possible to change the U.S. address given in your existing ESTA. Even if you are not flying to the arrival or departure ports given in your accepted ESTA, your travel authorization is still valid for entering the USA for two years. 


HOW DO I FIND OUT IF MY ESTA HAS BEEN AUTHORIZED?

Image of entering the USA with ESTA on an American Airport

If your ESTA application has been authorized your free to travel to the U.S.

HOW DO I FIND OUT IF MY ESTA HAS BEEN AUTHORIZED?

In most cases, you can check your ESTA status immediately after the payment has been made. If this is not the case, then it should be possible to check your status within the next 72 hours. In general, there are only three options for the status of your ESTA application: 

  • Authorization Approved
  • Travel Not Authorized
  • Authorization Pending

After paying, you will find a number displayed which is worth writing down. It's the so-called "application number" and you will need this to check your ESTA status. In case you don't have your application number handy for future reference please make sure can provide the following infos:

  • applicant's name
  • date of birth
  • passport number
  • passport issuing country

Giving social media data in ESTA, do I have to?

In addition to giving your personal details, like contacts, passport data, information about your current employer at the time of applying, the details of your contact person in the USA and a series of questions relevant to safety and security, you will also be asked to give social media data. Those who have already applied for an ESTA since December will have already noticed this new feature.

As of now, listing your social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is voluntary. Even though this field is optional, some applicants may worry that not completing this question will cause their application to be denied. According to the official ESTA webpage, this question has absolutely no influence on whether an application will be denied or not.     

What is the point of the question then? The U.S. authorities will use social media data to recognize and prevent possible terrorist threats. This should make it possible for the authorities to access posts only open to the public. Of course, many data privacy activists are critical of this. As long as the field remains optional, it is solely your decision.  

How much does an ESTA cost?

 An ESTA application costs 14 USD per person and can be paid with credit card or PayPal. Applying for an ESTA is never free of charge and even the U.S. government charges a processing fee.  

ESTA FRAUD warning

Did you pay more than the fixed price of 14 USD for your ESTA application? It is possible that you have applied over an untrustworthy service provider that charges a lot of money for an ESTA application which they may not even process. This means you may not get an ESTA confirmation – be careful of fraud! There are an increasing number of fraudulent sites selling fake Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) applications.

We strongly recommend that you only apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization over the official ESTA website run by the U.S. government. In case you need help completing the ESTA application, then you should contact your travel agency or our competent staff at the following ESTA hotline:

Tel.: +49 (0)900 172 44 11 (1,89 € / Min.)

Monday – Friday from 10:00 – 14:00 p.m.

With a valid ESTA you can legally enter the USA and there is nothing stopping your from enjoying your vacation in the USA. 

How long is my ESTA valid for?

You are planning your next trip to America but are not quite sure if your current ESTA is still valid? Better make sure what your status quo is, before entering the States.

In general, an ESTA is valid for two years from the date of applying and allows you to travel to the USA for a period of 90 days. There is no need to reapply for an ESTA when entering and exiting the USA as long as you still have a valid ESTA and you still meet the requirements for travelling under the Visa Waiver Program.

  • Important: If you change your name or receive a new passport, it is absolutely necessary to submit a new ESTA application.

Please give yourself enough time before your trip to find out if your ESTA is still valid or if you need to submit a new application. That way, you will be allowed enough time to apply for a new ESTA or even US Visa.

Picture of keyboard in order to check ESTA STatus online.

Check your ESTA validity easily online.

If you want to check your current ESTA status, you can do so easily though the official website.  Under the tab “Check ESTA Status” you have two options:

  1. You know the application number, therefore you will be able to check your current ESTA with the help of your number of the passport and date of birth.
  2. The application number is unknown to you, then you have to fill out the number of the passport, date of birth, First and last name, as well as your citizenship to access the current ESTA.

There also might be a so-called “Esta Expiration Warning Email“ send to the given email address 30 days prior to the date of expiry of your current application, to remind you of the status.

Be aware: Please do not confuse an approved ESTA with the guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the USA. The permission to enter the United States at the border does not depend on ESTA alone but also on the officer at the border.

The green card saves you some stress while entering the States, because you will be a legal permanent resident and not a tourist anymore. If you are thinking about the States as your new home, then you should definitively sign up for the green card lottery and make sure, that your American dream will be set into motion! 

ESTA Application DENIED

A denied ESTA application does not necessarily mean that you have been banned from entering the USA. A denied ESTA application means that you are not allowed to travel visa-free to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program. In this case, your only chance to enter the USA is to apply for a visa at the U.S. consulate closest to you. Beforehand, make sure you know which visa is right for your trip or contact our U.S. Visa Service Team from The American Dream.   

Reasons why esta applications get denied

Applying for an ESTA is the most important part of your American travel plans. It is crucial that you complete your ESTA application correctly so that it is not denied. You may think that it could not happen to you, but there are a few things that can lead to an ESTA authorization being denied. Below we list the most common reasons for ESTA application denials:

  • You have already overstayed your ESTA once before or have illegally spent time in the USA;
  • An ESTA has already been denied and your status and personal details since that denial have not changed;
  • A previous U.S. visa application has been denied; for example, you applied for a B-1/B-2 visitor visa and it was denied at the U.S. embassy;
  • The answers you provided in the ESTA application were incorrect or purposefully untruthful, for example, you lie about your nationality;
  • You entered that you do not have a criminal history and the United States government finds out that you do have a previous conviction;
  • You enter a passport number which does not match the passport you currently possess. Even a simple mistake, like switching two digits in your passport number can lead to a denied authorization;
  • If you accidently answer yes to one of the security questions in the application, even if you try to correct it later, your ESTA will most likely be denied;
  • You have a communicable disease or lie about having a communicable disease and the U.S. authorities find out that you do;
  • An ESTA will be denied if you have ever used or processed illegal drugs, illegally tried to enter the United States or have tried to help someone illegally enter the USA, are entering the USA to work or have already illegally worked in the USA, or have ever been involved in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage or genocide;
  • You are a dual citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria
  • You have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya since March 2011

The Department of Homeland Security which is responsible for ESTA will not give you a specific reason for rejecting your ESTA application. U.S. embassies and consulates are not able to provide you with the details of your ESTA denial.

What to do if your ESTA is denied

ESTA applicants must check on the status of their application after applying. If the status of your application reads, “Travel not Authorized” it means that the ESTA application has been denied.

There a limited number of things that you may do if your ESTA is denied.

  • The first thing you should do is carefully review the personal data you gave in the original ESTA application. It may be that you made a simple mistake like misspelling your name or forgetting a digit in your passport number. If this is the case, you can reapply for an ESTA with the correct information. You must once again pay the processing fee. Your second application may be accepted or denied.
  • If you again receive notification that your travel is not authorized, you must apply for a nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Any citizen who cannot enter the USA under the Visa Waiver Program must apply for either a B-1/B-2 visitor visa or another nonimmigrant visa. Please do not hesitate to contact the experts as U.S. Visa Service if you need any assistance.

ESTA - Guaranteed Entry?

Before boarding the plane to the United States, you are required by the airline you are flying with to have an authorized ESTA. Having an ESTA, however, is not always a guarantee that the border officer will let you into the USA. For example:

  • if you do not have a valid return or onward ticket, the border agent might deny you entry into the USA. Another reason for being denied entry into the USA would be
  • if you have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen since March 1st, 2011 and have not updated your ESTA accordingly. If you answered no to this question in the application, but the border agent sees a stamp from one of these countries in your passport, then you will be denied entry.

All in all, it is important to remember that the U.S. Customs and Border Control determine if a traveler will be allowed into the United States or not. The final decision is made at the border. Having an ESTA is required but is not, however, a guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the USA. 

How can i update or change my esta?

You successfully entered the USA with a valid ESTA and now you have just returned from an exciting vacation in the USA. You are already planning your next trip to America, but there are, however, a few changes you need to make on your ESTA. It is actually quite easy to update your given e-mail address or U.S. contact address online.

Below are step-by-step instructions on how to update your information:

  • Go to the official ESTA website
  • Using your personal data, access your current ESTA application by clicking on “Check ESTA Status” 
  • Click on “Update” located next to the ESTA date of validity
  • You will be transferred to an easy-to-use webpage where it is possible to change your e-mail address and your U.S. contact address.
picture of two passports for esta changes on US map

Easily update your current ESTA application online.

 

Be aware that after clicking to view changes made to your current ESTA application, not all your personal information may be shown (e.g. applicant name, passport number, contact information, job, etc.). Return to the main page to find your passport number.

Very important: A valid ESTA application automatically becomes invalid if the applicant must make significant changes to their application.

A new ESTA must be immediately applied for if the following changes apply:  

  • If you get a new passport
  • If your name changes due to e.g. marriage, adoption, divorce
  • If your gender changes
  • If your citizenship changes

Make sure you are able to present a valid and correct ESTA to the border officer when travelling to the USA. Traveling visa-free to the USA with an ESTA allows you to enjoy up to 90 days of vacation in America.

Can i renew my esta and stay longer than 90 days?

An ESTA cannot be renewed and a stay of longer than 90 days in the USA is not allowed. We strongly recommend that all travelers do not stay longer than 90 days, the maximum number of days allowed on an ESTA, to prevent problems when entering the USA again.

There are only a few strict exceptions to the rule that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will allow. These exceptions include emergencies and unforeseen circumstances, such as having a flight cancelled due to weather or strikes or a medical emergency which makes it impossible to leave the country within 90 days.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has the sole decision-making power to make an exception. The required application can only be made in a USCIS service center. If it is not possible to visit a USCIS service center because the traveler is, for example, required to remain in the airport, then they should make sure to document their situation including all canceled flights and weather. This documentation could help the traveler if a U.S. border officer has questions.