What is ESTA: Is ESTA Required For Travelers Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

ESTA – another set of initials in an already acronym heavy immigration law. ESTA is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) allows the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to pre-screen foreign national visitors traveling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This application system that is now a part of the Visa Waiver Program has made visiting the United States an easy and simple process for the millions of visitors with a machine readable passport (e-passport). Because of the increased security consciousness and related regulations, VWP visitors must now apply for a Travel Authorization in advance of their trip. The Travel Authorization application process is overseen and operated by the DHS.

Purpose of ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization):

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) was developed to allow DHS to pre-screen all travelers who intend to come to the US on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) before they leave their respective countries. Any travelers bound for the US are urged to apply for a Travel Authorization at least 72 hours prior to departure.

The ESTA Travel Authorization is not a visa. Thus, an approved Travel Authorization does not guarantee entry to the US, but it is a prerequisite for travel to the US by air or sea carrier. ESTA only pre-screens Visa Waiver Travelers in order to allow them to travel to the United States. Additionally ESTA is not an application for admission into the United States. But if you are not approved for a Travel Authorization, you must apply for a B-1/B-2 visitor visa. Moreover, foreign nationals from non-visa waiver countries should not even attempt to apply for a Travel Authorization.

More About the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization):

On January 12, 2009 a Travel Authorization became mandatory for all travelers under Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that intend to enter the United States by air or sea. Without an approved Travel Authorization, foreign nationals may be denied boarding, experience delayed processing at the port of entry, or even be denied entry at the US border.

An approved Travel Authorization is only required for the purpose of traveling to the US for travelers on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). However, foreign nationals from VWP countries transiting through the United States must also possess an approved ESTA application number.

While the ESTA is an additional step in coming to the US, it has not become a major bar for most applicants. According to DHS records over 96% of all ESTA applications are approved.

Applying for a Travel Authorization is not related to any visa process. It is a separate requirement that applies only to foreign nationals traveling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program. Once issued the Travel Authorization is valid for 2 years unless the foreign national’s passport expires earlier.

The USA-PATRIOT Act requires that all the travelers under Visa Waiver Program (VWP) have a machine-readable passport. To apply for Travel Authorization through ESTA you must have a machine readable passport with a digital photograph printed on the page that contains your biographic data. Alternatively, if you have a passport from one of the 8 new visa waiver countries, the passport needs an integrated chip containing the information from the data page. If you are from a Visa Waiver Country but hold an old passport (non-machine readable), you must now apply for a visitor visa in advance.

VWP travelers must still complete Form I-94W (the green form). However, while a Travel Authorization must be completed in advance, Form I-94W is normally provided to you by the airline. If not, Form I-94W is available at the US port of entry. Your ESTA information should match what you write on Form I-94W.

Many airline carriers that fly into the US are working on implementing an ESTA system which eliminates the need to complete the Form I-94W. However, this is a certification process which is time-consuming. While some carriers may already have an ESTA system implemented, others will not. Therefore, follow the instructions from the airline carrier and complete Form I-94W if necessary. After January 12, 2009 a Travel Authorization must be obtained in advance regardless for all Visa Waiver travelers.


All persons traveling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program must now apply for Travel Authorization under the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). The ESTA is occasionally mistaken by some travelers for being the same as a US visitor visa.

The ESTA, or Travel Authorization, is only for Visa Waiver travelers and is only related to “travel authorization.” A US visitor visa is still necessary for any other visitor to come to the US who does not qualify for VWP. ESTA is a simple online application system where Visa Waiver travelers can apply for a travel authorization. While the Travel Authorization is a requirement now for Visa Waiver participants, an approved authorization does not guaranty entry at the US border.

The ESTA process has enhanced the security of the VWP and has allowed the State Department and DHS to expand membership in the program, which, in turn, enables members from Visa Waiver Program countries to easily travel to the US for business or pleasure for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.