5 Quick (But Important) Tips for ESTA

by Carolyn Szaiff Alvarez

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (or ESTA, as it is commonly known) is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP enables most foreign nationals from participating countries to travel to the US for tourism or business without first obtaining a visa, if they meet certain requirements. These prospective travelers are required to demonstrate their eligibility for the VWP by applying for travel authorization via ESTA prior to boarding a plane or vessel bound for the US. Through ESTA, the US government compares the applicant’s personal information against various databases in order to determine whether there is a law enforcement or security reason to deem that person ineligible to travel to the US under the VWP. While the ESTA is valid for two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, the actual permitted stay in the US on the VWP is only ninety days at a time.

Here are five tips to help foreign nationals with ESTA:


There is no need to use an immigration attorney to apply for travel authorization via ESTA. While there are services and travel agents that will assist with the process for a fee, we find this to be an unnecessary cost. The application is straightforward and takes about five minutes and $14 to complete. That said, foreign nationals who have been arrested, cautioned, or who have experienced immigration issues in the past may need the assistance of a lawyer to ensure they answer questions correctly.


Foreign nationals must complete the ESTA application at least seventy-two hours in advance of trips to the US. Due to changes in ESTA application processing, CBP says that “real-time approvals will no longer be available.” Although not mandatory, CBP strongly recommends that travelers apply for their ESTA “at the time of booking their trip and no later than 72 hours prior to departure.” CPB notes that applicants “who apply on the same day of their flight’s departure risk not having an approved ESTA prior to their scheduled departure.” While completing the application, foreign nationals should have the following handy: passport, the address of where they will be staying in the US, and flight details. Once foreign nationals complete the ESTA application, they should keep the application number somewhere safe.  While foreign nationals are not required to bring a printout of the application when they travel to the US, we still recommend that they keep a printout for their records. A printout is also useful if they need to later change any information.


Once the ESTA application has been submitted, foreign nationals are only permitted to update their email address and the address of where they will be staying in the US.  Foreign nationals are required to reapply for ESTA authorization if there are any other changes. This includes travel to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011, getting a new passport, or denial of a visa at the US Embassy/Consulate, among other changes.


If foreign nationals have previously received ESTA authorization, they must remember to renew it in time for additional future trips to the US. ESTA authorization is valid only for two years or until the passport expires, whichever is sooner.


Foreign nationals must disclose any prior arrests (anywhere in the world) and immigration issues (e.g., denial of a US visa, denial of entry into the US, and so on) on the ESTA application. If foreign nationals do not, this could be construed as fraud, which may make applicants inadmissible to the US. As mentioned above, foreign nationals should consider speaking with an immigration lawyer about their previous immigration or legal problems and how they may impact their visa applications.

Entering the US

If the ESTA system determines that foreign nationals are eligible under the VWP, they may travel to the US. Note, however, that authorization via ESTA does not determine whether a traveler is admissible to the US—this is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers when the traveler arrives in the US. The CBP officer may determine that the traveler is inadmissible under the VWP or for any reason under US immigration law. This may include prior arrests, medical reasons, drug and alcohol issues, or other reasons. Once travelers pass through CBP, however, they have officially arrived in the US. Welcome to America! We hope you enjoy your stay!