Everyone from the UK going to the USA by air or sea, even those just passing through, must fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) form in advance.
This guide explains what the ESTA is, how to get it, how long it lasts for, what to be wary of and how to avoid paying more than the official $14-per-person fee. It's now been more than five years since the scheme became compulsory, so check yours now to see if you need a new one.
Everyone from the UK going to the US by air or sea, even those just passing through, must fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) form in advance.
This guide explains ESTA and how to avoid paying more than the official $14-per-person fee.
The five ESTA need-to-knows
You MUST complete the ESTA, even if passing through
Everyone going to the States by air or sea needs to fill out an ESTA form. If you haven't, even if you're only meant to be in transit, you may be denied boarding or can even be sent straight back home. See Who should complete the ESTA for more info.
You can only fill it out online
You must fill out the ESTA application online, which means for those without web access you'll need to find a friend, relative or colleague to do it for you. Once you've done it, make sure you keep a note of your reference number somewhere safe. Better still, print the authorisation page (see How to complete the ESTA).
It costs $14, but ensure you pay the cheapest way
All accepted applications have a fee of $14 each ($4 if you're rejected); that's $56 (around £33) for a family of four. Ensure you pay with the right piece of plastic to avoid being charged a foreign exchange 'load' fee on top by your bank. See Pay with the right card for more info.
Watch out for shyster ESTA sites
When Googling ESTA, be warned you may be directed to sites that pretend to be the official web page and charge you an additional fee to process your application. Always use the official ESTA site. See Shyster Sites for more on this.
You need to renew after two years
If you already have ESTA but need a new one (for example, if you've lost your passport or your existing authorisation has expired), the only way to renew is to complete a new application and get a new reference number. If you're unsure if you're still covered, check when yours expires on the ESTA website.
ESTA is an online system that tells you in advance whether you're eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
Pay the $14 fee with the right plastic
ESTA applications have a $14 fee attached to them - that's a hefty $56 for a family of four.
How to apply for ESTA
Just before booking flights or accommodation, the very first thing to do is to apply for your permit to travel, just in case you're rejected (so you don't lose the flight or hotel money) or forget nearer the time of the journey.
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Don't risk travelling without it
If you haven't completed the ESTA before travelling, or you did but were declined, you may not be allowed to board your outbound flight.
Other things to consider
Who's eligible and who needs ESTA
You need to fill one in:
If you're a citizen of one of the 37 countries which are part of the US's Visa Waver Program (the UK is, see the US Department of Homeland Security's website for a list).
If you don't have a US visitor's visa.
If you won't stay in the US for longer than 90 days.
If you're only travelling to the States for business or pleasure.
If you have a return or onward bound ticket.
On behalf of all infants and children.
A green I-94W form is mostly no longer needed
Travellers entering the US by air or sea with an approved ESTA won't have to complete the I-94W form. The I-94W (costing $6) will only be required if your ESTA's been rejected. It's also needed if you're arriving by land (via Canada or Mexico) without an approved ESTA.
Lost your reference number and need to make an amendment?
If you've got an ESTA already but need to update it or make a correction, you can do this on the ESTA website. There's no fee - just scroll down and put in your application number, date of birth and passport number.
If you've lost your ESTA number you can also find this online. Just scroll down to 'Retrieve your application number' and enter your name, passport number and date of birth. This is also a handy way to check if you're still covered by a previous ESTA, as the site will also tell you when it expires.
Get a new passport, get a new ESTA
If you've lost your passport, it was stolen or it's significantly damaged and must be replaced, your new passport will have a new number. So, you must apply for a new ESTA.
If you're renewing your passport, your ESTA will have the same expiry date (if it hasn't expired already) so you'll have to reapply with the new passport number too.
You need ESTA if travelling to Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands
As Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are governed by the US, you need ESTA before travelling to them, too.
You only need ESTA if travelling by air or sea
If you're travelling to the US by land from Canada or Mexico, you don't need ESTA. It's only necessary for travel by air or sea. An I-94W form, costing $6, is still required if you're arriving by land or sea if you don't have an approved ESTA.