When Covid-19 is hopefully a thing of the past – and the US reopens its borders to visitors again – we'll be first in the queue.

Travellers from Europe generally don’t need a visa to travel to the USA, but you will still need an ESTA.

ESTA is an abbreviation for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It’s America’s answer to the tedious visa application procedure.

Travellers that qualify for an ESTA circumvent the need for a visa entirely.

An ESTA grants you all the same rights a visa does, with a few minor exceptions which will be expanded on later.

The ESTA system was implemented after 9/11, as a way to more strictly monitor who is trying to enter the country.

How do I get one?

That’s the benefit of an ESTA: it can be applied for entirely online. The only thing you have to check is whether you qualify for one. Only travellers with certain nationalities (those that fall under the Visa Waiver Program, America’s ESTA program) can get an ESTA. This includes countries such as The United Kingdom and most European countries. If your country is not includes on this list, you need a visa to travel to the United States.

Getting an ESTA is quite a bit easier and cheaper than getting a US visa. All you need to do is fill in the online application form, make the payment, and sit back and wait. The ESTA is generally approved on the same day. You won’t receive a document. Instead, the ESTA is electronically linked to your passport. At the airport, all you need to do is present your passport to be allowed to board the plane. However, this does mean that you can’t replace this passport for the duration of your trip. If you get a new passport before or during your trip, the linked ESTA expires right away, and you need to apply for a new one.

How long does an ESTA last?

The ESTA is valid for two years. Unless, as mentioned above, the passport it is linked to expires before that. Within this two year period, you can travel to the US several times. However, each stay can only last a maximum of 90 days. This means you can use a single ESTA to travel to the USA multiple times in the span of two years. What’s more, you won’t need to change any of the information in your original application form, even if you are staying somewhere else on your second or third trip. As long as the passport information is the same, a single ESTA can be used as often as you like.

What can I do with an ESTA?

The ESTA can be used for holidays, business trips and transits in the USA. If you want to study or work in the United States, you need a visa or a specific permit. Additionally, you need to be able to present a return or transit ticket on arrival in the USA, to prove that you plan to leave the country before the duration of the ESTA ends. Other than that, the ESTA grants all the same benefits as a visa. You can use it to freely travel around the USA, visit family, friends, or talk to potential business partners.

The online form says I can’t get an ESTA?

It can occur that you have the right nationality, but the application form states that you can’t get an ESTA. This can have various reasons, but all of them are related to the safety questions asked at the end of the form. Here, you are asked for things like a criminal record, drug use/addiction, contagious diseases and other questions meant to weed out any potential threats to the United States. If you can’t answer all of the safety questions with “No”, you can’t get an ESTA. Instead, you will need to apply for a US visa. To do this, an appointment has to be made at the embassy where you explain in person why you want to travel to the USA. This can take weeks or even months, so make sure you make your appointment on time.