Traveling on the Visa Waiver?: The Nuts and Bolts of ESTA

What Is ESTA and How Does it Work?

ESTA – the Electronic System for Travel Authorization – is a security enhancement system for those coming from Visa Waiver countries to determine eligibility to enter the United States prior to showing up at the US border. Launched in 2009, it is a more efficient and thorough way to collect information about Visa Waiver Pilot Program applicants who wish to enter the United States.

The Visa Waiver Pilot Program (VWPP) or “Visa Waiver” program was launched in 1986 to allow countries with low refusal rates, low security issues, and high compliance the ability to enter the US without obtaining a visa. Approximately 36 countries are involved in the program. ESTA is essentially an online form and screening process that must take place prior to entering the US on the Visa Waiver program. Prior to ESTA, applicants filled out a white or green I-94W card. The ESTA form is only online and must be complied with prior to boarding a plane or vessel to the United States if you intend to travel via the Visa Waiver Program. There is no exception. However, if you have a visa to travel to the US and intend to enter with the visa, you do not need to worry about ESTA (even if you are FROM a Visa Waiver country).

The ESTA form is found at The Applicant fills out the form via the internet only. It normally takes about 72 hours to get an approval and more likely quicker than that.  You must read the questions carefully. The answers are reviewed by a human person. Please pay particular attention to the questions “Have you ever applied for a visa?” or “have you ever been denied a visa?” Failure to reply correctly could result in a charge of misrepresentation, which is a permanent bar to entry to the US. Talk to an immigration attorney if you have concerns about how to answer an ESTA question.

What Happens If I Had a Prior Visa Denial?

If you had a prior denial you should certainly disclose on your ESTA form. If your denial was what we refer to as a “221g” denial – because you did not provide full or accurate paperwork – it can generally be cured at the US Embassy. You should contact it to obtain further information as to what documents are missing. Once you send in your documents and your passport by post, the problem is usually solved. You may not have even thought you had a denial before so but if an Embassy refused you a visa, you should clearly follow up to find out if was indeed a denial. In some situations, you may need to schedule an interview with the US Embassy so be sure to give yourself PLENTY of time prior to your trip to the US to get this all resolved.

If you actually get the response “not authorized,” then your ESTA application has not been approved and you cannot travel on the Visa Waiver Program. You must then go to the US Embassy and apply for a visa.

Obtaining an ESTA approval is no guarantee of entry to the United States. It is merely a sufficient pre-screening process and an individual must still undergo scrutiny by US Border and Custom Patrol (CBP) for actual entry to the US. If you have an questions about ESTA or entry to the US, contact an immigration lawyer for assistance to ensure a stress free and smooth entry.




What should I do if I had a prior visa denial under section 214(b) but I still got an ESTA approval? Should I go ahead?

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