Home Business Insights & Advice I’m travelling to the USA: Do I get a visa or an ESTA?

I’m travelling to the USA: Do I get a visa or an ESTA?

by John Saunders
22nd Jan 20 2:28 pm

The United States has one of the strictest immigration policies in the world. This means that British travellers headed to the USA need to be well aware of the rules surrounding applying for a U.S. visa.

If you’re from the United Kingdom and headed to the United States for a holiday or business trip, you will require a visa, unless you possess a valid U.S. passport. However, in many cases it is no longer necessary to visit the U.S. embassy in London to submit a visa application there. A number of countries, including the United Kingdom, fall under the ESTA treaty. This means that travellers from these countries can apply for a digital travel permit (ESTA) if they plan to go to the United States. This removes the need to go through the cumbersome visa application process that other nationals are forced to undergo, which can often take months to complete.

What does ‘ESTA’ mean?

ESTA is an abbreviation of “Electronic System for Travel Authorization”. It is not a visa, but, as the name says, a special digital travel authorization. It is part of what is known as the Visa Waiver Program, a special program which grants nationals from certain countries the possibility to travel to the USA without a visa. Currently, 38 countries are part of the Visa Waiver Program, including the United Kingdom.

If you successfully applied for and received an ESTA, getting a U.S. visa is no longer necessary. While getting an ESTA is both faster and (far) cheaper than getting a visa, it comes with a number of requirements which don’t apply to the standard U.S. visa. Thus, British nationals that don’t qualify for an ESTA still need to apply for a visa at the embassy.

How does the ESTA work?

Unlike the visa, everything surrounding the ESTA happens online. To submit an application, all you do is fill in the digital ESTA form. Answer all the questions truthfully; if you are caught lying, not only will you be refused an ESTA, you will likely be banned from applying for any future ESTA as well.

Once all the fields have been filled out and the payment has been made, it generally doesn’t take longer than a day for the ESTA to be issued. This happens by e-mail. Printing the ESTA isn’t necessary, as it is instantly electronically linked to your passport. At the check-in at the airport, all you have to do is present your passport, and you will be allowed on the plane.

It is important to remember that even minors need their own ESTA and passport. Only traveller entering the United States by land or who already possess a U.S. visa or passport do not need to apply for an ESTA.

ESTA or Visa

An ESTA is valid for a variety of travel purposes, for example going on a holiday or business trip, or when making a transfer at an American airport. However, you are not permitted to work for an American organisation. In that case, a U.S. visa needs to be applied for. A person can perform paid labour with an ESTA, but only if their employer is located outside of the USA.

There are a number of requirements associated with applying for an ESTA. First of all, travellers need to prove that they will leave the USA. This can be easily done by presenting a return flight ticket. An ESTA application is also necessary for trips to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam or the American Virgin Islands. The same holds for the Northern Mariana Islands.

An ESTA is valid for 730 days, in other words two years. However, you can only stay in the USA for 90 days at a time. You can, in theory, leave before the 90 day limit is over and return to the USA at a later date to renew the period. However, be aware that this might raise suspicion with the U.S. immigration service. They are authorized, at any point, to retract any issued ESTA, without needing to provide a reason. At this point, the only option left is to make an appointment at the embassy for a visa.

The USA is also very strict regarding visitors that have been to certain countries the U.S. government deems ‘unsafe’. While British nationals qualify for an ESTA, if after 10 March 2011 they’ve been to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, North Korea or Somalia, they are excluded from applying for an ESTA.

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