There’s lots of talk about how non-U.S. citizens enter and leave the United States.

While the process almost always requires a visa, citizens of a select group of nations can visit the United States for business or leisure without one – at least for 90 days.

These foreign nationals live in countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Program. All they need to do is apply for an ESTA before they leave for the airport. Then, they’re in. (Exclusions do exist, and an ESTA doesn’t guarantee entry.)

Do you know what an ESTA is? Keep reading to learn the ESTA meaning and how to get one.

ESTA Meaning: What Is ESTA?

ESTA is short for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It’s the program the U.S. State Department uses to approve and track the entry of people who enter the U.S. via the Visa Waiver Program.

The Visa Waiver Program is a program that allows citizens from a specific list of countries to enter the United States as tourists or on business for up to 90 days. After 90 days, they need a visa.

If your country of citizenship doesn’t fall under the Visa Waiver Program, then you must follow the rules set for your country by the U.S. State Department. Usually, it requires a visit to a U.S. embassy and a visa application.

A Granted ESTA Doesn’t Guarantee Entry into the United States

Although the ESTA process is designed to make trips to the U.S. more relaxed, it doesn’t guarantee entry into the U.S. The State Department can still deny your ESTA, which means you can’t travel to the U.S. – at least on that program.

Why would your ESTA get denied?

Some of the common causes of rejection include:

  • Overstaying a previous ESTA or visa
  • Previously requesting permission and being denied
  • Incorrect answers on your ESTA application
  • A criminal record and conviction history
  • Sharing a name with someone who committed a crime
  • Identity theft
  • Using a passport reported as lost or stolen (whether yours or someone else’s)

The U.S. government performs cross-checks with other government databases for screening. If rejected, you won’t receive a reason from the State Department. Instead, you need to apply for a B2 or B1 visa if you still wish to travel to the U.S.

Who Needs an ESTA?

At present, citizens of 38 countries benefit from the Visa Waiver Program. You can see a full list of Visa Waiver Program countries on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website.

Be sure to check for your country on the list before applying. DHS added new countries (Taiwan) as recently as 2012.

Do Canadians Need an ESTA?

Canada is not part of the Visa Waiver Program and therefore, do not need an ESTA. At present, you can travel to the U.S. without a visa unless you intend to immigrate to work, study, or join a family member. 

All you need is your Canadian passport – if you fly. If you cross the border by land or sea, you need your passport and another travel document, like your NEXUS card or an enhanced driver’s license.

Do Mexicans Need an ESTA?

No, Mexicans do not need an ESTA because Mexico is not part of the Visa Waiver Program. However, unlike Canadians, Mexican nationals need an entry permit or visa before crossing the border by air, land, or sea.

If you are a Mexican national arriving as a tourist, you can apply for a tourist visa from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

Most Mexican nationals applying to visit the U.S. either receive a B-1 or B-2 visa – or a combination visa.

What Do You Need to Apply for an ESTA?

To apply for an ESTA, you need an e-passport, which means your passport must be machine-readable and have a digital chip with your biometric information. You know if your passport is an e-passport because it will have a symbol on it.

You also need your flight details and your contact details for your stay in the United States.

Finally, you must pay for your ESTA on the website. It costs $14 to apply. If rejected, you only pay $4. You need a credit or debit card for online payment. You can also pay with PayPal.

You have to pay within seven days of your application.

When Do You Have to Apply for an ESTA?

You must apply for an ESTA at least 72 hours before leaving the United States. The Department of Homeland Security no longer approves ESTA checks in realtime.

Even still, the application usually comes back within 24 hours. Most people get theirs within an hour after applying.

If you are a foreign national and arrive at the airport without an ESTA, your airline will likely deny you the chance to board the plane. If you do get on the flight, then you will be unable to clear customs and immigration upon arrival.

Once you have an ESTA, it is suitable for multiple trips over two years. If you get a new passport in the meantime, then you have to reapply. However, remember that an ESTA isn’t a guarantee that you get in: the State Department can still reject you on subsequent trips.

Are You Ready for Your Trip to the United States? 

If you are not a U.S. citizen or legal resident, then you need a visa to enter the United States – unless your country is a member of the Visa Waiver Program.

Citizens of those countries can apply for an ESTA, meaning you can fill out a short form online and pay $14 rather than visiting your closest U.S. embassy.

Did you find this article helpful? Visit the rest of our Travel & Entertainment archive for more great content.

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