This post (probably) contains affiliate links and I may receive a small commission if you click one. This is at no extra cost to you and I'm incredibly grateful for it because it allows this site to keep running.
It’s nothing to do with Eastern Standard Time. It’s nothing to do with Estimated Times of Arrival. In fact, it’s nothing to do with time at all. But if you’re planning to travel to the USA, you’ll probably want to know, among other things, how much time you have to get hold of one.
Assuming you even know what ESTA is, of course….
If ESTA sounds more like the woman who lives down the street or a Spanish verb than something you need to apply for, don’t worry. I knew nothing about it until after I booked my flight to LA, but today I’m going to give you everything you need to know about applying for an ESTA to visited the USA.
(Psst, I should probably say right now that I’m writing this a British citizen so this is all coming from the perspective of UK national visiting the USA, but you can find a full list of ESTA countries below.)
The last time I travelled to the USA, it was on a bit of a whim. When I left the UK for Malaysia and Thailand, I had no idea that my journey would take me to Mexico and the United States before I made it back to London again.
I also thought, with three weeks in Mexico before I planned to travel the US, I had plenty of time to apply for ESTA.
Until I realised I would need to spend one night in LA en route to Mexico City. And guess what… you need a valid ESTA for that!
Once I realised I was going to need my ESTA three weeks earlier, I wasn’t sure the ESTA would cover my entire trip to the US. And so the ESTA fun began. If it sounds a bit like the whole affair was one question after another, that’s because it was.
Here are all the things you need to know about applying for ESTA – preferably BEFORE you book your flights to the USA. Because who books flights without checking this stuff first?
Your ESTA questions – answered!
Yes, it’s kind of tedious. No, nobody wants to have to do it. But luckily applying for an ESTA couldn’t be more simple. Here’s everything you need for a smooth ESTA application.
What is an ESTA?
ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It’s basically a system that allows citizens from any country recognised as a Visa Waiver Country to travel to the United States and apply for entry without a visa.
Which countries are covered by ESTA?
Quite a few! You can find the full official list here but it covers most European countries plus a few others. There are currently 38 Visa Waiver Countries in total, but this can change at any time. Among others, Argentina was recently removed and South Korea was recently added.
How long does an ESTA last?
An ESTA generally lasts for two years. This means you can travel to the USA multiple times during the two-year period, with no trip exceeding the 90-day limit. You will have to reapply for a new ESTA if you change your name, gender, country of citizenship or receive a new passport during the validity period.
How long does ESTA take?
Most ESTA applications will be processed in less than an hour, but can take up to 72 hours. An ESTA is valid as long as you obtain it before boarding the plane, so it’s best to apply as soon as you start planning your trip.
I’ve applied before… Is my ESTA still valid?
As long as your approval date falls within the last two years of your planned date of entry to the USA, your ESTA should be valid. The exception to this is if you make any of the changes listed above and need to reapply. Your ESTA also does not need to be valid for the entirety of your trip – it’s the entry date that matters.
Do I need to print my ESTA?
This is the one that got me! Being location independent, I don’t have access to a printer (or most household items, for that matter). Cue a hectic sprint around Bangkok the day before we were due to leave Thailand…
As it turned out, I entered the USA twice without needing the crumpled paper at the bottom of my bag. But after they GRILLED me for my time spent studying in the Middle East – and subsequent visits – I was sure glad I had it just in case. Yes, your information should be stored in the system and linked to your passport automatically, but you really should print it. Perhaps even print it multiple times.
How can I check the status of my ESTA?
You can check the status of your ESTA application online, so make sure you take a note of your application number. I didn’t receive any email to tell me when my ESTA was approved but it said processing for a couple of days.
Can I travel without an ESTA?
In short: no. ESTA does not guarantee you entry to the USA, but is a requirement to apply for it (i.e. at airport immigration). Therefore you must apply online before travelling.
And that’s all there is to it! That wasn’t so bad now, was it? Now go forth, book your plane ticket and start planning an epic US road trip, packing for the streets of New York or preparing for the hike to Havasu Falls.