How does the ESTA differ from other USA visas?

Any foreign nationals wishing to enter the US must first of all obtain some form of visa that provides the relevant permission required from the US border control authorities. Different types of visas are available for different types of reasons for travelling to the US.
An ESTA is a temporary visa that enables eligible people from a country that is part of the Visa Waiver Program to enter the US for tourism, business and transit purposes. Other visas are for more specific purposes and are generally for longer periods. For example, working visas, student visas, investors visas and business associates visas have a different set of eligibility criteria.

Length of validity

Whilst an ESTA will be valid for two years from the date it is approved, other visas will have different rules regarding the length that they will be granted for. A student visa for instance will be approved for the duration of study, if the necessary criteria is met by the applicant. A temporary/seasonal worker visa will usually be granted for the period of time necessary to complete the work, which typically will be for the season where there is the demand for that type of work.
The ESTA is restricted to only allow ESTA holders to visit the US for a single period of up to 90 days, so if a person wanted to be in the US for a longer stay than that then they would require a different type of visa.
Whilst a new ESTA can be applied for over and over again as one ESTA expires, other types of visas have restrictions on extending the validity. For some types of visa, additional extension increments are possible but usually to a certain limited period.

Application process and processing times

The application process for an ESTA is comparably easier than most of the other types of visas, as the majority of them require an appointment and interview at the US Embassy within the visa applicant’s home country.
The application process is considerably longer than ESTA, as an ESTA can be processed in a matter of minutes, whilst an alternative US visa can take months in some cases. Different types of forms are required depending on the visa type, with the ESTA form being much shorter, as other visas require more details to be provided to determine whether it will be approved. Other visa applications can be many pages long and can take many hours to fill in, compared to an ESTA that can be completed in around 10 minutes.
The application process for a working visa involves an employer in the US acquiring a labor certification to be approved before a visa can be applied for through the DS-160 form. These extra steps will take a lot longer than the more simplistic processing of an ESTA application for business, tourism and transit purposes.
Other visa types will often require the applicant, employer, college or other party to provide documents as part of the requirements for the application. They also generally require evidence that the applicant has the finances to ensure they can afford to live in the US if they are entering the US as a student and unable to earn income in the US.

Strict rules around visa eligibility

Another key difference between an ESTA and other types of visa is that an ESTA is open to any occupation, whilst other visas will be specific to certain types of occupations and skills. There are strict rules around the classifications of skilled workers for example, and processes in place to ensure that the work could not be carried out by US workers instead.
For some visas, such as the H1-B visa, a dependent H4 visa is available for the spouse and children under 21 of the visa holder. This enables their family to join them for their stay in the US. With an ESTA, there are no similar linked visas, each person travelling to the US requires their own ESTA, although a group application can be submitted for up to 50 individual applicants.
Difference in application fees
The fee for an ESTA application is also much less than the fees for other types of visas. Most non-immigrant visas cost $160 for the application fee, whilst petition-based visas are $190. The ESTA fee is much less. Sometimes the US employer will pay the fee for their potential employees, whilst an ESTA will always be paid by the applicant (or whoever applies on their behalf).

Related FAQs

What happens if your ESTA expires while you are in the USA?

If you are in the US and your ESTA expires then it is not an issue, as your ESTA must only be valid when you are entering the border of the US. This is when you will get checked by the border control authorities, so when you are returning to the UK or wherever else, there is no requirement to have a valid ESTA.

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Do I need specific travel plans to apply for ESTA?

You do not need specific travel plans when you are applying for an ESTA, you just need to fill in the address where you will be staying. If you’re travelling around the U.S. then you can just write the first place you’re staying at as a point of reference.

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Do I need a digital passport for ESTA?

Yes, all applicants for ESTA must have unexpired, up-to-date, and valid digital passports. This also applies to children of all ages, including infants. The passport must remain valid for the entire duration of your stay in the United States.

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