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What is an ESTA

Complete guide to the ESTA, Electronic System for Travel Authorisation

Mehdi Punjwani
Written by  Mehdi Punjwani
6 min read
Updated: 20 Mar 2024

For UK citizens travelling to the USA for fewer than 90 days, you’ll need to fill out a visa waiver form known as an ESTA instead of applying for a visa. Here’s what you need to know about applying.

What is an ESTA? 

ESTA is an abbreviation for electronic system for travel authorisation - it’s a waiver form that means you won’t need a visa if you’re visiting the USA and staying for fewer than 90 days. You’ll need to fill it in before travelling in order to be eligible for your visit to the USA. 

travel USA

Who needs an ESTA? 

An ESTA is required if you’re visiting the USA from the UK or another country that is eligible for the ESTA programme and you’re staying for fewer than 90 days. You’ll need one even if you’ve only got a connecting flight in an American airport - so long as you’re entering the country by air or sea you will require an ESTA. 

If you’re planning to be in the country for 90 days or longer then you’ll need to apply for a visa instead - the ESTA programme is designed for short-term visits.  

Who can apply for an ESTA? 

Visitors from 40 countries across the world can apply for an ESTA for their visit to the USA, including the UK - so this is the recommended route for British passport holders.  

How to get an ESTA 

The process of getting an ESTA is relatively straightforward - you’ll just need to do the following: 

  1. Ensure you have a valid passport, a payment method, contact information and details about your most recent employment  

  2. Complete the online application form 

  3. Pay the required fee  

Passport requirements for an ESTA 

You will need an e-passport, or a passport with a chip that can be read by a machine, otherwise you won’t be able to apply for an ESTA - so if you don’t have one you’ll need to get this first. 

How long does it take to get an ESTA? 

It can take up to 72 hours to be approved for an ESTA, however in some cases you may be told in seconds or minutes. Once you’ve applied you’ll get an application number which you can use to check the status of your application. You should apply for an ESTA and wait for it to be approved before booking flights. 

How much does an ESTA cost? 

You’ll need to pay a fee of $21 for your ESTA application. It’s broken down into a $4 processing fee when you apply and a $17 authorisation fee if approved. 

Why might my ESTA application be declined? 

Your ESTA application might be refused for a number of reasons, including:  

  • You stayed in the USA for longer than permitted on your previous visit  

  • You’ve lied or provided false information on your application  

  • You’ve once lost a passport or reported it stolen 

  • You’ve already applied for a visa 

  • You’ve previously been denied entry into the USA 

  • You’ve got a criminal record 

  • You have a second nationality from or have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia since 1 March 2011 

What can I do if my ESTA application is denied? 

Your only other port of call if your ESTA application is refused is to go to the US Consulate in order to apply for a non-immigrant visa - but this can be a lengthy process if you can’t get an urgent appointment. You can also file a redress request at The Department of Homeland Security Traveller Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) site, but this may also take a while. 

This is why it’s recommended to arrange your ESTA prior to booking your holiday and at least well before flying out. 

What else do I need to travel to the USA? 

Alongside your ESTA, you’ll need your passport, tickets, accommodation details, and some US dollars for your trip. It’s also recommended that you take out travel insurance, particularly as medical treatment costs in the USA can be extremely high - ensure you have a worldwide policy that offers cover for the USA as this isn’t always included as standard. 

Travel insurance with pre-existing conditions 

Travel insurance lets you explore the world with confidence, even with a pre-existing medical condition such as diabetes or cancer – as long as you tell your insurer about it.  

We can show you prices from a panel of specialist insurers that offer medical travel insurance covering a wide range of medical conditions to ensure you’ll be covered should a condition flare up while you’re away.  

If you're still struggling to find suitable cover, the MoneyHelper website provides a list of specialist insurers to help you get adequate cover, or you can call the British Insurance Brokers Association on 0370 950 1790.   

More on medical travel insurance 

Why compare travel insurance with MoneySuperMarket? 

At MoneySuperMarket, we’re here to make sure your holiday planning is a breeze. Here’s what you’ll get: 

  • Flexible to suit your plans: Get fully comprehensive cover for as long as you need it, whether that's one day or a few months 

  • Quick and easy to use: Simply pop in a few details about where you’re off to next, pick the best deal for you and get insured for your next trip. 

  • Save money: Compare quotes from the UK's leading travel insurance providers and filter through a range of policies that match your needs as well as your budget. 

Frequently asked questions

What questions are on an ESTA application?

You’ll be asked for your passport details, date and place of birth, contact details, information about your employment and travel plans, any additional citizenships you have, and your parents’ names. You’ll also need to answer questions about involvement in criminal behaviour and associated convictions - answering ‘yes’ could lead to a refused application. 

Do I need an ESTA to travel to Hawaii?

Yes, Hawaii is still a state in the USA so you’ll need an ESTA - as you will if visiting Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands.  

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