The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows eligible citizens and nationals of 38 participating countries to travel to the USA for tourism or business purposes without a visa, for stays no more than 90 days.
ESTA is not a visa. It is a travel requirement of nationals from the VWP countries. If you are not eligible to enter the USA under the VWP then you must apply for a visa, and do not need to apply for an ESTA.
Possession of a valid ESTA is not a guarantee of admission into the United States; just as possession of a valid visa is not. On arriving in the USA, visitors travelling with an approved ESTA will be inspected by officers of the US Customs and Border Protection to rule out any inadmissibility under criteria of the VWP, or US law.
Applying for an ESTA
ESTA is a web-based system; applications must be made online. A response to your application i.e. an approval or rejection, will be issued anywhere from seconds after applying to 72 hours after applying. Thus, the US Customs and Border Protection advise that you complete the process at least 72 hours before you intend to travel.
If your ESTA application is not approved you must wait at least ten days to reapply, and your circumstances must have changed.
An approved ESTA is valid for two years, or until your passport expires. If your passport is valid for less than two years when you apply, you will be issued an ESTA that is only valid until the date that your passport expires. It is no problem if your ESTA expires during your visit to the USA; you will not need to apply for a new one before you leave the US. A valid ESTA allows multiple visits to the USA without the need to reapply for a new ESTA.
Even if you have a valid ESTA, you will be required to apply for a new one if:
- You receive a new passport
- You change your first and/or last name
- You change your gender
- You change your country of citizenship
Are all citizens of VWP countries eligible for ESTA travel
There are circumstances that make citizen of VWP participating countries ineligible for an ESTA and the VWP:
- You have been denied a US visa previously.
- You have been denied admission into the USA previously.
- You intend to spend over 90 days in the United States
- You are visiting the United States for a purpose other than business or tourism.
- You have travelled to, or been present in, Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria after March 1, 2011 (there are limited exceptions for people who had to travel for diplomatic or military purposes in service of their country).
- You are a national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria.
If you fall into any of these categories you will still be able to apply for a US visa.
I hope that is helpful in your planning for your first trip to the USA