ESTA or Visa for America from the UK?

Before travelling to the United States, first check whether you need to apply for a visa or if you are eligible for visa-free travel.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of 38 partner countries, including the UK, to travel to the US for business or tourism without needing a visa for a period of up to 90 days.

To travel under the VWP you must possess a valid electronic and machine-readable passport. These are enhanced secure passports with an embedded chip containing key biometric information about the passport holder.



Do you need a visa to travel to the US?

Broadly speaking, as a British citizen holding a valid e-passport, you will be permitted to travel to the United States visa-free. That said, there are certain restrictions to visa-free travel under the VWP, for example, where:

  • Your history shows that you have been arrested for certain crimes, even if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction, or you have a criminal record.
  • You have been previously denied entry to or deported from the US, or you have previously overstayed on the VWP.
  • You have a serious communicable illness.

US immigration rules require all travelers to pass an online pre-screening process to determine eligibility to travel visa-free. This is known as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).

What is ESTA authorization?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) authorises a traveller to board a US-bound air or sea carrier under the VWP.

To apply you should complete an online form on the official ESTA website at least 72 hours prior to your departure, although decisions on ESTA applications are usually provided within just 24 hours.

Please note that separate ESTA applications are required per person, even infants.

It is also important to note that in the event your ESTA application is denied, you will need to apply for a corresponding visa from your nearest US Embassy or Consulate. This could potentially take several weeks, if not longer, causing your travel plans to be delayed.

This system was introduced in response to increased security threats, enabling officials to pre-screen travellers prior to their arrival in the US against numerous criminal and terrorist list databases. This system also effectively streamlines the processing of visa waiver applicants.

ESTA is an entirely automated process in which your data is automatically cross-referenced with a range of databases, and the decision as to whether or not to approve your visa-free travel is based on information that can be assessed digitally. Unlike visa applications, no physical documentation is required.

Does ESTA guarantee entry?

Although ESTA entitles the holder to travel to the United States, this authorisation does not guarantee entry. US officials at the port of entry still have the right to permit or deny your admission.

It is therefore imperative, even for those of you travelling to the US for only the shortest trip, to be fully prepared for any Border Patrol questioning.

You should also carry with you any documentation in support of your reason for travel, including evidence that you have sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay, or risk being denied entry.

Unless revoked, ESTA approvals are typically valid for a period of two years from the time of receipt, or until your passport expires, whichever is sooner.

The authorisation can also be used for multiple entries into the United States during this period, whereby you are permitted to travel to the US for periods of up to 90 consecutive days at a time.

The 90-day clock starts from the time you arrive in the USA. You are not permitted to outstay this period, whereby overstaying will almost certainly affect your ability to re-enter the US at any point in the future.

By travelling to any neighbouring country during your trip, such as Canada or Mexico, will not stop the 90-day clock from ticking. If you risk running over the 90-day time limit it is often advisable to revise your plans and return to the UK.

Visa-free travel under ESTA is limited to the following purposes: tourism, business, periods of short study, medical treatment, or for transit through the US.

Please note that the definition of “business” is somewhat limited. This does not include travelling to the United States to undertake paid work, although it does cover attending business meetings, seminars or conferences and the like.

Similarly, you can only undertake a short recreational course of study that does not count towards any academic credit.

In the event that your intended travel purposes fall outside those permitted by ESTA or, alternatively, you wish to visit the United States for a period of more than 90 days, you will need to apply for the appropriate visa.

If you need a visa to travel to America

Travelling with ESTA approval is a much easier process than applying for a visa, but travellers must ensure they are eligible to travel visa-free as restrictions do apply. If you are not eligible for, or have been denied an ESTA, you will need to apply for the relevant US visa. A visa is an entirely separate form of travel authorization compared to ESTA. Applying for a visa involves a much lengthier process, often taking several weeks for a decision to be made. It will require you to complete a comprehensive application form and provide extensive documentation in support. In most cases, you will also need to attend an interview at a US Consulate or Embassy.

The most common type of visa for those visiting the United States is the temporary visitor visa. This is split into two categories, B-1 for business and B-2 for tourism, pleasure or visiting. As with ESTA, a business visa will allow for things like business meetings or other legitimate activities of a commercial or professional nature, but will not generally allow for gainful employment or productive activity.

There are multiple classifications and types of US visa, and you will need to ascertain which best suits your needs and eligibility, for example, do you need a temporary work or study visa, or are you starting up a US business?

When applying for a visa it is always best to seek expert advice from a specialist in US immigration to ensure you are opting for the most suitable visa and that your application is correct, comprehensive and compelling to maximise your prospects of a successful outcome.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.