You’re all packed and ready to head out the door. You’ve spent months organising your US holiday, prepping lists, checking them twice to make sure you’ve got everything, calling your bank to tell them you’ll be travelling and so on. You’re all set.

Or are you?

You know you don’t need a visa because the UK falls under the Visa Waiver Program. Unfortunately, though, you’re still going to need an ESTA to enter the US, or an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation. Without one, the most you’re going to see of the United States is the inside of the airport.

What Is an ESTA?

An ESTA is only issued to people who the government of the US deems eligible to enter the country and is specific for citizens of those countries that qualify under the Visa Waiver Program. In essence, if you want to go the States, then you’re going to have to submit to a quick background check because that’s pretty much what happens when you apply for the ESTA.

The good news is that the ESTA is valid for two consecutive years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. In other words, you can apply in plenty of time, without leaving everything to the last second.

The processing time is usually 24 hours, but Murphy’s Law has a tendency to complicate matters, which is why it’s usually a good idea to get your family’s paperwork sorted out in plenty of time before departure.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security advises travellers to apply for the ESTA as soon as they know they’ll be going to the US.

Why Do I Need an ESTA?

The Visa Waiver Program was supposed to make things less complicated to travel to the US, but in 2009, the DHS decided that they need a way to pre-screen travellers for security risks. So, the point of the ESTA is basically to check that you’re not intending to get involved in less than savoury activities while you are in the US.

And yes, your kids will also need an ESTA. Apparently, kids are an incredible security risk. They’re probably worried about some enterprising children starting a sweets trafficking ring, or even planning to take over Disney Land.

So, if you want to travel to the US, your whole family will need to apply for an ESTA.

ESTAs Aren’t a Done Deal

Don’t think that being from the UK means you will automatically receive an ESTA. You could be denied if:

  • you aren’t completely honest on your application
  • you’ve overstayed the 90-day authorized period
  • you’ve applied with a passport number that was previously reported stolen or lost
  • you’ve worked without a legal permit in the US
  • if you’ve been previously denied entry to the country.

You could also be denied your ESTA for silly mistakes, like leaving a mandatory field blank, or even filling in the wrong information by accident.

For this reason, some people choose to work with a qualified immigration specialist, getting them to look over the application before they submit it.

However, the applying for an ESTA is quite simple, so if you’ve done nothing wrong, all you have to do is pay attention when filling out the application.

What Can I Do If I’ve Been Denied an ESTA?

If you’ve been denied an ESTA, your only other option is to apply for a B1 or B2 tourist visa. It can take some time to process, though, and there’s no guarantee you will receive the visa.

This is why you want to make sure you file for an ESTA as soon as you know you plan to travel to the US, even if your trip is in a year’s time.

It might sound a little paranoid, but if you give yourself plenty of time, and things don’t go your way, you still have a chance of getting things sorted. On the other hand, if you apply for an ESTA a week before and are denied, you can be sure you’re not going to have time to get a visa.

So, it pays to be cautious and prepare in time. After all, you have to make sure the US government is fully aware of the fact that your kids aren’t planning on taking over their theme parks for nefarious purposes.

Don’t forget to check out their site for answers to any other questions related to the ESTA you may have.