An Electronic System Travel Authorisation (ESTA), is pre-programed system under the Visa Waiver Program, used to establish a person’s eligibility to enter the USA. Eligibility is determined through the processing of biographic data and information submitted for the visa waiver program; all with regard to law enforcement and security. After processing this information, the ESTA communicates your eligibility or ineligibility to travel.
ESTA originated from the necessity for added security values in scrutinising the data provided by intending travellers under the Visa Waiver Program. After the 9/11 attacks, a committee was formed, which laid down the importance of putting a pre-authorisation procedure in place to provide early recognition of individuals who pose a threat to security.
In certain cases, an ESTA application may be denied. In the event of this, affected individual can apply to procure a travelling visa. If an application is approved however, the ESTA licence will last for a period of at least two years, excluding Greece which is one year. Successful ESTA acquisition hardly guarantees automatic entry into the United States. It has more to do with the decisions of the United States Border officials, and Custom Security officials.
An ESTA authorisation can be requested at any time before travel. However, to avoid delays, it is advisable to put in an application immediately you start to make travel plans.
A comprehensive understanding of the operations and functions of visas and the visa waiver program is necessary to completely grasp the concept of ESTA.
Wikipedia defines a Visa as provisory permission granted to a foreigner by a country, providing entrance or exit, and temporary residence permits within the country.
A visa is usually stamped on the passport pages to provide the needed permission. It is a document that shows that a traveller has obtained the authorisation to enter a foreign country. Your passport has to be an electronic passport containing a digital chip where biometric information about the owner is located. Also, the passport must have a biography page with a machine-readable zone.
As a rule, visas specify the duration the visitor is permitted to spend within a country and whether or not he is permitted to work while he is there.
Some countries have visa exemption agreements, which mean that visitor from such countries will not require a visa to enter certain countries. Such agreements provide a waiver on the provision of visas as a requirement to enter the countries concerned.
The United States is one of the countries having visa exemption arrangements. This program is administered by The Department of Homeland Security. Citizens of countries participating in the visa waiver program are able to visit the United States to conduct business or for pleasure purposes without first providing a visa. Such visitors are allowed to stay within the US for 90 days at the most.
The same gesture is reciprocated to the United States by countries under this program. At the moment, 38 countries are involved in this program.
These 38 countries participating in the program are:
- San Marino
- Czech Republic
- South Korea
- United Kingdom**
- New Zealand
As mentioned earlier, only citizens of the above mentioned countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program, are eligible for an ESTA. Nationals of countries registered under the Visa Waiver Program qualify to apply for an ESTA.
The Visa Waiver Program contains exceptions for safety precautions however. According to the government, citizens of countries under the exemption agreement will be denied ESTA for the specific reason of having a recorded presence in Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Sudan on or after March 1, 2011 (limited exception to this rule exists for those who travelled to those countries for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country)
In addition, nationals of VWP countries who also hold citizenship in Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan are not permitted to apply for an ESTA. Instead, such individuals can apply for a visa.
Is an ESTA the same as a Visa?
An ESTA is not at all the same as a Visa. However, there are some similarities and also some differences between the both of them.
- Approved ESTAs and Visas are similar in the sense that they are both travel papers permitting the holders to obtain entry into the United States.
- With both Visas and ESTAs, the United States can easily trace persons entering the country, and find out their purposes for the visit
- They ensure added security to guard the US borders
- While Visas require more comprehensive records showing the individual’s ambition to return to his home country, ESTAs simply require an e-passport, contact documents, and where applicable, most recent employment.
- The process of visa application takes longer and requires the physical presence of the applicant at a US embassy or consulate to be interviewed. On the other hand, an ESTA serves as an extra precaution in order to aid visa-free travel among countries registered under the Visa Waiver Program.
- The duration allowed with an approved ESTA is two years, allowing a holder unlimited entry into the US during that time, while a Visa is valid for six months up to two years, and can be granted for either single or multiple entries.
- Under the US law, where a Visa is required, an approved ESTA cannot be accepted because it does not meet the legal requirements to do so.
The customs and border security page declares that individuals in possession of a valid visa are qualified to travel to the United States to carry out the purposes the visa was issued for. Travellers in possession of valid visas do not have to apply for ESTA.
In conclusion, the ESTA is a highly significant document. In order to be allowed entry, citizens participating in the Visa Waiver Program need to obtain an approval.