US Travels: What is ESTA and Who Needs It

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Traveling to the United States requires different documentation depending on status and citizenship. US citizens simply need to present their passports and other required documentation before they can enter their country. But for other nationalities, it is a different story. To enter the US, visa applications are necessary.  

Countries have different visa policies, that is, a set of rules that identifies who or who may not enter into their country. Visa restrictions are in place to prevent illegal immigration and to limit criminal activities. Through the application of visa, authorities can screen persons who may enter their countries and just be a problem. For the US, the types of visas are the following:

  • Business visa or professional visa to be granted for nationalities who will be conducting business in the US;
  • Visitor visa for those traveling for tourism;
  • Student visa for international students who will be studying in schools accredited in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP);
  • Transit visa for travelers who will have a short layover in the US, but are going to another country, and
  • Fiancé(e) visa for people who will get married to a US citizen and will be living in the US.

However, another program was created by the US to replace the visa system. This is the ESTA.

What is ESTA?

ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. An ESTA is an electronic system that enables those nationalities participating in the visa waiver program to apply for authorization to travel to the US, instead of getting a visa. This automated system assists in determining if a traveler is eligible to go to the US. Of course, there are still some conditions in place before an ESTA is awarded. 

Visa Waiver Program 

The following are countries under the US visa waiver program. In essence, citizens of these countries are qualified to apply for the ESTA. There are currently 39 countries on the list. 

Other Conditions

Aside from being a nationality of one of the countries in the visa waiver program, there are other conditions to adhere to.

  • The applicant must travel to the US for travel or business only.
  • The visitor intends to stay in the US for 90 days or less.

If the two conditions are not met, the traveler must apply for a corresponding US visa. 

The passports of the traveler must also meet the conditions of the security features of their passports. That is, it must have: 

  • A machine-readable region of the biographic page, and 
  • Must be an electronic passport with a digital chip. 

ESTA Validity and Update

The ESTA is valid for two years. An ESTA update is required if you have been issued a new passport or a temporary one; if you changed your name, gender, or citizenship; or if any of the yes and no questions in the ESTA have to be modified. 

ESTA does provide an easier way of entry to the US. You simply have to be a citizen of any of the countries in the VWP. Your passport should also have security features required by the ESTA. Lastly, if you are traveling for business or tourism and will only stay for less than 90 days, then the ESTA is for you. Otherwise, a visa application is required. However, do note that there are instances of ESTA denial as deemed appropriate by the US Customs and Border Protection. 

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