Get an ESTA for US travel

How to pay no more than the $21 fee

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 an 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 $21-per-person fee.

Ready to get your ESTA? The guide below explains exactly what an ESTA is, when you need one and what to watch out for. But if you’re ready to get your ESTA now, apply via the official ESTA website.

The five ESTA need-to-knows

  • Most people going to the States by air or sea WILL need 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. 

    Obviously some people DO need a visa instead of an ESTA, for example if they're staying in the US for a very long time or working. In that case see the US Embassy website for the rules and full help.

  • You must fill out an ESTA application online, which means those without web access will need to find a friend, relative or colleague to help. 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 an ESTA).

  • All accepted applications have a fee of $21 each ($4 if you're rejected). That's $84 (around £65) for a family of four. The fee was previously $14, but went up in May 2022.

    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.

  • 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 Copycat Sites for more on this.

  • Your ESTA is valid for two years from the date you application is approved.  

    If you already have an ESTA but need a new one (for example, if you've lost your passport, it's expired, 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.

What's ESTA?

ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) 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).

It replaced the old system of filling out a green I-94W piece of paper (commonly thought of as the Visa Waiver form) on a plane into the US. With that method, you'd only find out on arrival if US security decided you didn't fit under the VWP, based on what you put on the form and any further questions asked.

Now travellers have to complete an ESTA and know in advance whether they qualify to travel or not, minimising the possible loss of plane fares, hotels and more.

An ESTA is required for everyone entering the US by air or sea. If you cross a land border, via Canada or Mexico, then you need to complete a handwritten I-94W form, costing $6 per person, unless you already have an approved ESTA.

ESTA approval doesn't guarantee you entry

It's important to understand successfully applying for an ESTA doesn't mean you're automatically allowed to enter the USA. It just establishes that you're 'eligible to travel'.

Only a US Customs and Border Protection officer at the point of entry can decide whether you're actually allowed in or not. He or she may decide that you don't fit the VWP criteria after all. It's completely at their discretion.

Although this sounds scary, there are very few horror stories of being denied entry (unless you failed to declare a criminal record), especially since ESTA was introduced.

Pay the $21 fee with the right plastic

ESTA applications now have a $21 fee attached to them (it went up from $14 in May 2022) – that's $84 for a family of four.

Four dollars covers the ESTA administration and, rather bizarrely, $17 goes to a fund to promote US tourism – ironic as perhaps a better way to promote US tourism would be not to charge people who want to visit.

This isn’t a visa charge for entry, it’s a charge for getting permission to attempt to enter the country. (Incidentally, most US visitors to the UK don’t have to pay anything.)

Avoid foreign exchange card fees

The system accepts payment via PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover (JCB, Diners Club). If your ESTA's rejected, you'll still be charged $4 (the admin fee) for applying.

Most of these types of plastic contain hidden charges, such as adding a 'load' onto the exchange rate when spending, and even charging interest from the moment you make a transaction.

You can beat this by using a specialist foreign spending card that won't penalise you. For all the current top cards, see our Travel Credit Card guide.

How to apply for an 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.

Simply visit the US Department of Homeland Security’s special ESTA web page. The instructions are available in a choice of languages but your responses must be in English. It’s far from a slick website so pay careful attention as you complete each page. It should only take about five minutes.

You’ll be asked for your UK contact details, including passport number and expiry, plus the address where you're staying in the States.

The latter can be added or amended at a later time, but approximate info is often sufficient. A full list of what you'll need to provide and help on how to answer the questions you'll be asked is on the US Department of Homeland Security website.

You may be told within seconds if your application has been accepted or rejected. Otherwise, you'll be asked to check your application status later, as a decision can take up to 72 hours.

An ESTA lasts for two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. Once it runs out, you'll need to apply for a new one. See the ESTA feedback thread for past application experiences.

Make sure you print the page or note the reference number

Although you don’t need to present the reference number at Border Protection when you land on US soil, print it out and bring it to the airport. That's because some airlines may require the printout upon check-in, so check with yours. Rather frustratingly, it isn't emailed to you.

However, if you do lose it, it's possible to get it back on the ESTA website. Click 'Retrieve my application' 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 your ESTA expires.

You can ONLY apply online

This authorisation can only be given via online application. US Customs and Border Protection says a friend, relative, travel agent or third party can complete an ESTA on behalf of an individual. So if you know someone without internet access, please help them register if they’re making a trip to the States.

It does seem bizarre that the US is effectively saying you need the internet to visit. It’d be awful if, for example, an older non-web user didn't hear about this and was unprepared if they needed to make an emergency trip.

Avoid copycat websites

Watch out for websites demanding a fee for the ESTA. Search the internet for ‘ESTA’ and you’ll discover many that claim to submit an application on your behalf.

Not only will you be paying money unnecessarily, you can't be certain it'll be a legit submission and acceptance, so you may still get turned away when you get to the US.

The US Department for Homeland Security says it can’t stop this. But its logo is trademarked, so only if you see this will it be legit (though the scam websites do have very good imitations). The easiest thing to remember is: use the link in this guide and it's the official route.

The official logo, sourced from ESTA

You can't 'renew' it, you must reapply

All ESTAs have an end date; either two years from being granted or when your passport expires, whichever is sooner. If yours runs out, or you need a new one if you get a new passport, simply apply again in exactly the same way you did the first time.

This'll give you a new reference number, plus expiry date, and your old ESTA will automatically cease to be valid.

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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.

It's worth remembering that anyone can apply for ESTA on your behalf and, although the Department of Homeland Security recommends giving at least 72 hours for a decision to be made, it often only takes seconds.

Of course, if you're rejected, you'll lose the cost of your flights and any associated expenses such as hotel bookings and car hire (if they're non-refundable), as insurance providers will almost certainly not cover you for this.

What if my ESTA is rejected?

Travellers denied an ESTA should apply for a non-immigrant visa at a US Embassy. They'll still be charged a $4 admin fee for the rejected ESTA application. Visit the US Department of State website for more info on visas.

For more tricks to save also see 60+ Overseas Travel Tips.

Other things to consider

  • Who's eligible and who needs an ESTA

    You need to fill one in:

    • If you're a citizen of one of the 40 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.

    If you don't qualify for an ESTA and need a visa, for example if you're staying in the US for longer than 90 days or will be working there, see the US Embassy website for full help.

  • 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?

    If you've got an ESTA already but have lost the reference number, you can check this on the ESTA website. There's no fee - just select 'Check application status' and put in your passport details 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 an ESTA if travelling to Puerto Rico, Hawaii or the US Virgin Islands

    As Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands are governed by the US, you need ESTA before travelling to them too.

    You'll also need one if travelling to Hawaii or Alaska - which, while far-flung, are both US states.

  • Travelling by land from Canada or Mexico? You don't need an 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.

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