For over a decade, the ESTA visa waiver program has made it easier for tourist and business travel to America. Since its inception, changes on various application requirements have taken place and at some instances, particularly with extensive additions to the application form requirements, eligibility, and security screening.
The ESTA has profound differences with other conventional visas. To begin with, the ESTA is a ‘visa waiver’ which means that it is not a visa in technical terms. ESTA is meant to provide people with a fast way of getting into the country for a short duration and once their purpose is fulfilled, they are required to travel outside of the United States. On the other hand, conventional visas allow people to gain entry to America for specific purposes and with a longer duration as compared to an ESTA.
More importantly, ESTA is different since it does not provide U.S. visitors with legal rights afforded to individuals who are U.S. Citizens, or possess a U.S. Green Card or a work visa. For example, individuals who possess a visa have the capacity to travel to America and stay until the purpose in which it was applied expires as well as are granted certain immigration rights. ESTA travelers can make short stays on business or leisure if they do not exceed 90 days, whereas people with a U.S. visa can stay within the country until their purpose of stay is complete even if it is ten years.
People with valid U.S. visas are not required to apply for an ESTA visa waiver. In other words, individuals with valid visas are not required to apply for a travel authorization to avoid duplicity of function. According to the article by the U.S Customs and Border Protection (2017), having both forms of visa does not guarantee entry into America though they prove that consular agencies in the other country have approved travel. It is the discretion of American immigration authorities to determine admissibility of travel applications and yet they do not need give justifications for approving or denying travel to applicants.
Regardless, individuals can apply for an ESTA if the eligibility requirements are met and the intended purpose is justifiable within the short period of 90 days. A person is eligible for admission under the ESTA visa waiver program if he or she comes from the 38 countries listed under the waiver program. These countries are as follows: Australia, Austria, Andorra, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. In addition to being a citizen of these countries, applicants must meet the following eligibility requirements;
Applicants must not be in possession of a visitor’s visa
The duration of stay is up to a maximum of 90 days
The travel should be for pleasure or business because these purposes do not demand prolonged times of stay; hence, the lack of need for a lengthy application process
A valid passport that has been lawfully issued by a country participating in the visa waiver program
The planned travel does not terminate in contiguous territory or adjacent territories unless the applicant is a resident of the country
Provide reasonable justifications to U.S. Customs and Border Protection of admissibility through immigration and nationality act
Provide proof through biometric identifiers, valid passport, and personal details that all conditions necessary for visa application have been met
A person is eligible if he/she is not deemed to pose a threat to the health, safety, welfare, and security of America especially after the 9/11 incident
Once an applicant meets all the eligibility requirements, there are additional requirements that must be met. First, the person must have a valid passport from the 38 countries participating in the visa waiver program. This is a basic requirement that must be provided during the application process because it contains pertinent information necessary for making the admissibility determination. Applicants must not be in possession of a visitor’s visa as it removes the essence of an ESTA application.
Further, McNeill, Carafano, Dean, & Sales (2009) have stressed on the payment mechanism since most people are not well informed on ways to make secure payments. What is needed is a valid VISA, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover Card because of their recognition by the government as being secure, authentic, and in conformity to financial requirements as provided by state agencies.
Payment of the fees can be done later as compared to some perceptions that it should be done instantaneously. Individual applicants have an allowance of seven days after submitting the application to complete payment. Exceeding this threshold makes the application inaccessible and the applicant must reapply. The same is applicable for group applications but the seven-day countdown begins after the last application has been filed. As compared to an individual application, the group ID becomes inaccessible and the group point of contact must resubmit. According to McNeill, Carafano, Dean, & Sales (2009), this policy is intended to ease application processing and shorten the application duration.
With the inception of enhanced ESTA, more requirements have been included and they should be met to improve the likelihood of authorization approval. As of the year 2014, additional questions about names and aliases, citizenships, parent names, national identification number, and employment information have been added as part of the enhanced vetting measures by agencies responsible for immigration. Employment information has been included as part of section 214b of the immigration and nationality act because it demonstrates eligibility under these legal requirements. Applicants must therefore provide these details to justify their purpose of travel.
Based on the eligibility requirements and application requirements, one can think of an ESTA visa waiver as just a temporary travel authorization. People need an ESTA to enter America for short durations of less than 90 days which means that its creation was for tourism and business activities that require short and finite time periods. A flexible visa waiver program enables an increased flow of genuine business and tourist travelers into America with positive outcomes for tourism and the broader U.S. economy. In circumstances where the visit must be extended past the 90-day duration, visitors are obligated to apply for a U.S. visa.
Applicants are not required to apply for an ESTA having booked travel itinerary. Travel details do not need to be provided during the application process but there is requirement for having a point of contact in America, the address of stay, and if in transit, it must be indicated in the travel information section. Even if mistakes occur on a submitted application, it is possible to make corrections (Duckett, 2016). Applicants must further note that some fields like passport number and issuing country cannot be altered unless a new application is made and the necessary fees are paid.
Applicants have sometimes faced difficulties especially with their names and dates on important travel documentation such as passports. For instance, some names contain letters that are not in the English alphabet and create inherent spelling difficulties on ESTA applications. Typically, the solution is to refer to the machine-readable part of the passport to see a universal spelling of their respective names. Passports nearing expiry have also caused applicant’s difficulties as their passport expiry date may occur whilst they are in the U.S. (Siskin, 2014).
Finally, results on an application are usually provided immediately after submission since the ESTA’s approval process is highly automated. In cases where more time is required for processing, it takes a maximum of 72 hours to reach a final decision and responses can be accessed by checking the application status webpage or via email, if the applicant provided an email address at the time the ESTA application was submitted. There are three responses for an ESTA application namely; “Authorization Approved”, “Travel Not Authorized”, and “Authorization Pending”. A decision of “Travel Not Authorized” is not a denial of entry but a prohibition from traveling to America using the visa waiver program. Thus, in such circumstances the traveler will need to apply for a B1 Business Visa, or B2 Tourist Visa or C1 Transit Visa. Similarly, “Authorization Pending” does not indicate a negative outcome for the traveler, but merely indicates additional time is required by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process his / her application and determine an outcome.