Visiting The USA On An ESTA? No More Instant Approvals

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

This won’t affect a large number of OMAAT readers who already hold US passports, but for those of us who visit the US on foreign passports, many do so under the ESTA program.

ESTA stands for ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorisation,’ and is an automated entry system for eligible passport holders from 38 countries to enter the USA for business or personal reasons without any other entry visa.

Most of these countries are European, though it also includes countries like Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It is compulsory to obtain an ESTA if you are a passport holder from ESTA eligible countries.

It is not required when entering the US by land, from Mexico or Canada.

I’ve found obtaining ESTAs to be a quick, efficient, and painless experience, although I would have preferred to have a confirmation email once my ESTA is obtained for complete peace of mind rather than just a confirmation page at the time saying ‘your ESTA is approved.’

Although there are some shady ‘ESTA agents’ who will organize an ESTA for you for a huge fee, it’s very simple to complete online for a small fee of US$14, and once approved it allows the ESTA holder to enter the US for period of up to 90 days each time, and is valid for up to two years.

If you change your passport number (i.e. if your passport expires or you run out of pages as I do every 3 years), you will need to apply for a new ESTA linked to your new passport number.

While I’m careful to ensure I hold a valid ESTA well before commencing any journey to the US, the process of obtaining one is so easy and quick that some passengers apply for one when checking in for their flight to the US.

I have heard several horror stories of families that forgot to apply for an ESTA before arriving at the airport and then the ‘helpful’ airline check in agent offers to help them apply for one on their phone on the spot so they can check them in.

Either the check in agent or passenger(s) then either make a mistake inputting the details into a cell phone displayed website, or fail to enter the information in time before check in closes, and miss their flight.

The moral of the story is, don’t leave it until you get to the airport if you need an ESTA, and certainly check your ESTA status when booking flights to the USA, especially if you have changed your name or passport.

Though approvals were instant (as it is an automated program), the US government has now changed this, so effective immediately, approvals will take at least 72 hours from applying.

ESTA official website

Bottom line

This won’t be much of a change for organized travellers who have their ESTA and any other entry requirements organized well before their bags are packed to travel.

But if you had been leaving your ESTA application until you are in a cab on your way to the airport, you will be denied check in as approvals will no longer be instant.

Also ensure if you are applying that you only go through the official website here, to avoid the unscrupulous ‘ESTA Agents’ who set up websites that look very official but then charge many times the standard price for doing something you can easily do for free.

(Tip of the hat to AusBT)

  1. This is remarkably stupid and inefficient, but what else should you expect from the Trump administration, an administration so stupid they’re likely going to shut down the government in a few days. Hopefully he’s in jail soon and we can get back to having a functioning government.

  2. I wish I was surprised. Stephen Miller working his hardest to make things more difficult for even the “acceptable” foreigners.

  3. Paranoid country. The land of the “free” is the only place I’ve ever had any dramas entering and even exiting.

  4. Hmm. Unfortunate. I wonder if there is a good rationale for this or if it’s just part of the Trump administration’s broader tightening up of immigration (legal immigration). Lots of signs that the U.S. government is not just trying to crack down on illegal immigration but making things tougher on the high-skilled legal immigration the Republicans said they were fine with.

  5. Sorin

    Read your own link. It clearly states there will be more real time approvals and you should apply ‘… not less than 72 hours before ..’ which is a major change to past practice. So yes it deserves an article on it.

  6. Actually the correct full name for the ESTA program is “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” 🙂

    The US is far from the only country with visa or other entry screening/validation requirements – electronic or otherwise. Some are more onerous than a 72 hour wait for an electronic approval to process.

  7. Indeed my sister forgot her ESTA last time she flew on a new passport and managed to get her new one via her ipad whilst at the check in desk. Last time I applied it took 48 hours I think – it had been instantaneous before so I don’t know what happened there. I always apply in advance unlike my sister…

  8. @James, on a related topic, Australian ETA approvals used to be instant for US passport holders – just like you are describing, some people did it at the airport. I now know of at least 3 people who had their ETA’s denied, even though they’ve traveled to Australia in the past few years on the same passports.

    Unlike US ESTA, this was not simply a delay where you had to wait for approval. They had to call a service center in Australia, provide their details, then a few days later received an email with further instructions. Had to print out and fill some forms, scan them, email the images to a processing center in Canada, then wait a few more days for ETA to finally be approved.

    So if you are traveling to Australia on a US passport, you may want to apply for your ETA at least 2 weeks in advance.

  9. @Dennis – The U.S. is one of only two countries that doesn’t have immigration upon exit, so I’d be curious to know the hassle you received upon leaving the country.

    I’m not proud of how we treat visitors to our country to be clear, but I was glad to hear the ESTA process is pretty painless.

  10. @Daniel, upon departing Fort Lauderdale once for an international flight, there was a CBP officer who checked my passport and boarding pass (it felt like a standard practice kind of thing), but then asked what had I been doing in the country (in an official way) and whether I worked or not (duh!). It was earlier this year and just a week or two after the orange buffoon made some kind of announcement of stricter border controls for everyone. So maybe it was a one-off thing?

  11. @Dennis, perhaps try leaving/entering San Diego county in a car…..and be stopped to ask what your citizenship is…I suppose that’s on Trump as well.

  12. @Dennis: it was almost certainly a one-off thing. I’ve never seen an exit check in the US, in FLL or elsewhere. CBP can ask anywhere near a border but it’s rare and certainly not SOP. Fort Lauderdale CBP has been under scrutiny for being especially aggressive.

    @Daniel: while less common, I haven’t had exit immigration in UK, Ireland, Canada or Mexico.

    Schengen exit passport control is the most shambolic thing I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. If someone can justify it beyond some sort of make work for public sector employees I’d love to hear it.

  13. @Mark: Correct, Canada does not have exit passport checks (at least at airports, I’ve never left Canada from the sea or land).

    Apparently, Canada introduced a program a couple of years back where they do keep track of who leaves though. Airlines have to submit passenger passport info when someone is leaving from an airport and the US immigration authorities remit the data back to the Canadian government at the US border. So they do have data on who leaves, but they just don’t go through the lame rigmarole of a formal immigration desk check. (just googled it)

  14. @Dennis- The US does conduct outbound inspections on various flights (and always have, yes even with OBAMA and BUSH 43…). its NOT a TRUMP thing. There are outbound inspections for a variety of reasons on flights. While not very common, they do happen. So its not giving you a “problem”, its agents doing their job to conduct outbound inspections. There are literally hundreds of laws that CBP enforces inbound and outbound.

    @David, there are more than 2 countries that do not have “regular” exit control. I can tell you for a fact US, Canada, Mexico, and UK do NOT have regular exit control.There may be more. I know there are not many, but more than 2.

    The moral of this entire story for everyone is that instead of waiting for the last minute to figure out what you need, you should probably plan ahead.

  15. I really hope the EU reciprocates and makes it also rather hard for US citizens to enter. After all the US is the real empire of evil.

  16. We love visiting the States, and even with all the hassle at immigration, the demoralising queues etc, once you eventually get through, it is great. The problem with US immigration is, everybody is a suspect, which is wrong, better staff profiling training and automation would help everything including the ESTA process, it’s all about trained staff making it easy for the good folks, and processing them quickly, and using their energies to crack down on the bad guys.

  17. I’ve always had breath-holding moments in entry/exit to Australia, a country I’ve seen many times, lived and worked in and love no matter. I’ve had entry exit supervision in many countries including from Yangon to Ngapali within Myanmar. And in leaving Greece just last week. Let everyone do what they feel they need to do for their own country and we’ll all be fine.

  18. I dispute the idea there is no immigration formality to pass through on leaving the US by air. There is in fact a ‘line’ before security when your passport is swiped and wordlessly handed back to you in seconds. It’s just that there are no questions and theatre like on arrival where your passport is actually stamped after meeting the approval of the Immigration officer.

  19. @glenn there is no immigration leaving the US. In fact, international flights leave from the same terminals as domestic flights, so there’s nothing special about outbound departures. That line you mention is just security checking your boarding pass and ID match, which is done for domestic flights too.

  20. @ David

    I know, but first of all way too late and secondly just as comfortable as the old ESTA. That’s just not enough for people from a country with so easy access to guns and so many right-wing domestic terrorists

  21. Thank you for the article! I had to get a new ESTA for my wife because her old one expired. We are leaving for the US in Monday. Without your warning I would have done it too late. So I did it right away and as expected, it was not immediately approved. But it came through after 90 minutes 🙂

  22. @cab, not surprising as I have been stopped on I-10 in Texas at a FORMAL “border check” – not the actual border but to be fair, it is quite close and no doubt a hot border run area. My wife is a US citizen and was subject to the same questions and “suspicions”.

    @RC – I don’t have a problem with immigration and customs procedures as such. The problem I have is the way the US handles it. Like @Londonscot said, everyone is a suspect and 95% of CBP officers make you feel as though you have committed a crime. It is ALWAYS a hassle and a nerve-racking moment. It usually takes hours and you feel as though you’ve narrowly escaped a couple of decades detention at Guantanamo Bay (I know it’s closed but you get the point). Every other country does what they need to do for border checks, but nonetheless makes you feel welcome regardless of their political or cultural positions, except the US.

  23. @Dennis

    I can respect your opinion. Most of the time though, it is the standard questions that are learned in training. i will admit that I have been to about 40 countries and most have been very easy with little to no questioning (and I am not a white, middle aged male). I am actually surprised that I don’t get stopped more. However, my most hectic experience was entering the UK. I must have stood in front of an inquisitive officer for more than 5 minutes at the primary inspection booth. He just could not understand/believe my story. It was such a pain in the butt, however, due to my line of work, i can say he did a good job and was professional 100% of the time.

    I don’t know your situation or status, but I always ASSUME that I will be asked something or searched when entering another country. A foreigner does not have a right to enter someone else’s country, so just because you may not like it. It is what it is. I’ll agree there are some bad and badge heavy border agents.

    Regarding the lines and the waits, It is not the CBP fault generally…Can you imagine how many people are coming in to the country at any given airport at a time. There is only so many people that can be handled. I mean you get 3 A380’s, 4-5 77W, and say 10 738s within an hour or two its gonna load up any immigration haul. Other than London and maybe a few other cities, I don’t know many other airports who receive such a massive amount of arrivals on a daily and constant basis.

  24. @RC, sorry but I respectfully disagree. American mentality is that a foreigner doesn’t have a right to enter someone else’s country. Therein lies the problem with the CBP agents who feel the same way. They think it’s a privilege when in fact, people do have a right to legally visit a country for business or pleasure, so long as they of course have their paperwork in order. As for your comment about the volume of people coming in, you do have a point. However, it’s a matter of assigning appropriate resources. I have been through many airports bigger or of comparable size to JFK in very little time. I have also been through JFK (Terminal 4) once in less than 30 minutes so it can be done. Other ports of entry I’ve used include LAX, ATL, BOS (x2), FLL, JFK (terminals 4 (x2) and 7), the MX/US land border at San Diego and apart from the one time at JFK, it’s been an average of 1.5 – 2 hours. If it’s so busy all the time – then put more staff on or expand the facility! I’ll admit it used to take a while to re-enter Australia especially for customs. However, in Perth anyway, they recognized it and expanded it. Now it’s an absolute breeze. My wife arrived once to AU on her US passport with a 12 months work visa and she was surprised how quick it all was – she was out in 20 minutes.

    I also stand by my comment about the unnecessarily heavy handedness of the border agents. I am white European, in my 30s, an Australian national, have a clean criminal record, always appear neat and tidy, have a steady job – and yet still made to feel like a criminal upon entering the US. I just wish they were a little less paranoid. I’m sure all foreigners (even US citizens) who have entered the US know what I’m talking about.

  25. To me it makes perfect sense that countries do checks upon entry and exit. But the process needs to be swift and organized. Singapore is an example of total perfection, they check everything and there is no waiting time.
    Europe is generally OK but at times understaffed.
    US CBP seem to be untrained, rude and paranoid.

  26. I did both a Canadian ETA and a US ESTA in the last few days. The ETA was super quick, maybe a couple of hours at most. The ESTA was about 24 hours or a bit less.

  27. @Ron So true… Hong Kong is really good. I heard Japan is really good as well.

    Watch the TV show: border security America’s front line. It really show how paranoid US CSP are. They assume everyone doing something wrong. There was a few time in the show that CSP over react.

  28. Well, I didn’t had any problem getting a US visa.
    It was valid for 5 years, and when expired, I applied again to get a 10years visa
    First time it took me 2 hours, from entering the consulate to be on my way home.
    Second time took me 30minutes.
    I don’t travel regularly to US anymore, as I do prefer going to Asia now.
    But it’s nice to have my visa ready.
    Also got instant approval for a AUS visa.
    Maybe I’m just lucky.

  29. I am confused. When I traveled through US territory in 2014, I was informed by my travel agency that I must apply for ESTA at least 72 hours before arriving. So it was possible to do it on arrival? This was new information to me. I guess that the 72 hour rule is nothing new, but the big no-no for instant is. Going to be interesting in US airport arrival halls from now on.

  30. @ Peter – no you cannot apply on arrival – you will be denied boarding if you do not have it when boarding your flight to the US.

    Because many people received instant approval, some would wait until check in to apply for it. I wouldn’t recommend ever doing that, but now it will be impossible to wait until check in because of the 72 hour rule.

  31. @Peter, I think the main point is that while it has been possible to get it almost instantaneously in the past (although not guaranteed), it seems that chance is gone and now visitors should expect it to take 72 hours.
    People (including myself) have been getting used to it being approved in a matter of hours, so it’s good to know it really needs to be done now well ahead of time.

  32. You would wonder what the rationale is for slowing down a system which works instantly to make it take 72+ hours.

    More evidence that the Land of the Free is not the Land of the Paranoid. A place to avoid.

  33. The presumption in the US is that every non-US citizen is an intending immigrant, ie, wants to stay in the US permanently, not just visit. It therefore becomes the visitor’s “burden of proof” to establish non-immigrant intent. And this must be established to the satisfaction of the border officer; having paperwork in advance (a visa, etc.) is obviously important, but the officer has great latitude and discretion at the port of entry. All of this is baked into the written rules and also the mentality with which border agents approach foreign visitors. You can say it’s wrong or results in needless delays for many “innocent” travelers, but it’s a deep structural feature of the system. With that in mind, it was amazing for me to read that an ESTA was ever available at the point of departure to the US. 72 hours seems wholly reasonable and it would never occur to me to complain if a country I wished to visit imposed such a requirement on me. From a legal perspective, foreign travel is a privilege. In a perfect world, it might be a human right, but we don’t live in that world and are unlikely to in any of our lifetimes.

  34. @ALPHA: Something else you can blame the President for… it has nothing to do with him, give yourself an almighty upper-cut mate…. you should be thankful tourism is up in the USA, more jobs, more wealth, better for the economy… do you give credit to the President for that? I thought not, in fact, instead of one upper-cut, give yourself a triple upper-cut you goose

  35. 1) There are no exit formalities leaving the US because we have either the manifest or data exchange with Canada and Mexico for the land borders.
    2) Most of the time, CBP officers are polite and professional. There are some bad apples. The US does not have a monopoly on this (looking at you, CBSA).
    3) When my husband moved to the US, immigration formalities took about 15 minutes. It all depends on having paperwork in order and arriving when it isn’t too busy.
    4) A number of foreign citizens can get global entry. Most of Europe and the Americas can get 10-year B visas. ESTA is absolutely a convenience for people who don’t travel to the US often, but since visas get higher scrutiny upon issuance they usually result in an easier entry.

  36. It’s pretty disheartening and somewhat ridiculous to read the asinine comments from Robbo, Phil Duncan, Elijah and others slamming the U.S. I find the U.S. to be really no more onerous, nor easy to deal with Immigration than basically every other nation I’ve visited on earth. That includes “friendly” places like Canada, U.K., and Mexico.

    I can regale you with my story about exiting Mexico City after a business trip, only to have Mexican Immigration in the airport grab my garment bag from me, feel the shoes inside and start yelling at me about “tequila”. After calmly explaining that they were zapatos and offering to show them, they relented. Have also dealt with dicey immigration in several places in Europe. That doesn’t make me hate those countries – it just means I caught a lousy government worker having a bad day.

    Bottom line is that we all should respect every nation’s right to patrol their own borders in whatever way they see fit.

    You need to turn off your television and stop believing the utter garbage the media spews. America and Americans love immigrants and tourists from abroad (we are a nation made completely of immigrants from somewhere else after all), but really hate the idea that some people think it’s perfectly acceptable to flaunt our laws and borders and storm in however and whenever they see fit.

    Immigration (from anywhere) = good. Illegal immigration = bad.

  37. @Too Much Flying: The best comment ever!

    @Dennis: Just another data point, From JFK T1arrival to LGA TB gate within 45 minutes in total time (no check-in luggage).

    As a person with global entry and TSA-pre travel in the US is not hard and difficult, bad apples are everywhere, my worst experience was in LHR Indian agent, rude and unprofessional.

  38. Not sure what is new. May be the processing time for ESTA has slightly increased?

    I’ve had ESTA since it has been introduced and, of course, had to renew it every two years. Firstly, is was free, for a couple of years now it comes at USD 14, which seems pretty steep given it’s an automated process. However, it was never “instantaneous”. It always took at least half an hour, sometimes a few hours – but never more than 24 hours to get approved. I never had any issue with it, but I would never had expected to do it at the airport during check-in. So the only possible difference seems to be that it now can take up to 72 hours. But does it really take any longer?

    As regards the immigration lines upon arrival, this varies tremendously between airports and even between terminals. Worst in my experience is IAD (Washington Dulles) where the minimum (!) was 3 hours, best ATL where I never waited more than 5 minutes.

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