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What is ESTA?

An ESTA stands for "Electronic System for Travel Authorization" and is a system introduced by the U.S. Government to improve travel security in relation to persons entering the U.S borders. An ESTA involves providing information that will be assessed to decide whether the applicant is eligible to travel to the USA without the requirement for a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
You can apply for ESTA online, and the form is straightforward and can be completed in a matter of minutes. Normally the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recommends that you fill in and submit your form at least 72 hours before you are due to start your journey to the USA, but because the system is automated your application is normally processed quickly and is usually reviewed in minutes. For more information on what details are required when filling out the form, click here.
If your application is accepted, the ESTA form grants you an approved authorisation prior travel to the U.S. without a visa. However, authorisation via ESTA does not determine whether you can enter the United States - this will be decided by CBP officers upon your arrival. What ESTA allows for biographic information and answers to VWP eligibility questions to be collected. It is not a visa, and does not meet the requirements to serve instead of a visa in the U.S.
It is now mandatory for all citizens of VWP countries to obtain ESTA when travelling to or even through the USA by air or sea, provided the trip is for 90 days or less and the purpose of the trip is for business or pleasure. Outside of these parameters, a visa shall be required. The requirement extends to all persons travelling, including children and infants.
Your authorised ESTA is valid for 2 years, and during this period you can make any number of 90-day trips for business or tourism, provided your passport does not expire in this period. Your ESTA will also become invalid if you overstay the 90-day period. Certain changes in your circumstances and personal details can also invalidate your authorisation, including your legal name, citizenship, and criminal record. Some changes might mean that you can no longer travel under ESTA, so you should check it is still valid by reading the relevant information on the website before you travel.