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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

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

How much does an ESTA cost?

ESTA application denied

Reasons why ESTA applications get denied

What to do if your ESTA is denied

ESTA - Guaranteed entry?

 

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. 

Image of entering the USA with ESTA on an American Airport

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.  

How long is my ESTA valid for?

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. Your ESTA automatically becomes invalid as soon as you get a new passport number, your current passport expires or your name changes. There may be other circumstances when applying for a new ESTA is necessary. 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. If you have any doubts, we are here to advise you. 

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. The power to make the final decision on if you can enter or not lies solely with the officers from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The border officer in the airport decides on the spot if you can enter and for how long. The decision is noted in your passport. Extending your stay while already in the USA is principally not allowed. Trips in and out of Mexico or Canada will also not give you an extension of the 90-day rule.

If flying to the USA with an ESTA, you should be able to present the border officer with proof of a valid return flight. As a customer of The American Dream, you have access to the travel trips we have gathered for you. The advantages to being a Green Card holder are clear here. We recommend anyone who finds the USA exciting and has ever just thought of living in the USA to apply for the Green Card Lottery.    

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.