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So I went on holiday to the USA last summer. I filled out an ESTA application online, which cost me 14 dollars due to processing costs and whatnot. I printed a copy of the approved PDF and put it in my backpack. I took it with me where ever I went, just in case.

Nobody, in the 15 days that I was there, asked for my ESTA application. Not during customs, not during my check-in at hotels, not during my flight back to where I live, never.

  1. Why did I fill out that form?
  2. Was it accidental that nobody asked for it?
  3. In what situation would a person of authority ask for it? Do you need to have a printed copy with you at all times?
  4. Who are the persons who may ask for validation of an ESTA application?
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The only time you'd be asked for an ESTA is at immigration if you haven't filled out the form/forgot to renew the application. Not recommended. Also, if I recall correctly, it even says on the ESTA site that you don't need to carry a paper copy with you. –  Jonas Sep 4 '13 at 10:18
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up vote 13 down vote accepted

ESTA stands for "Electronic System for Travel Authorization".

The key word here is "Electronic". This refers not only to the fact that the ESTA is applied for online, but also to the fact that it is checked electronically.

When you checked-in for your flight to the US, the airline would have electronically confirmed that you had an ESTA, and thus you were allowed to board the flight.

When you went through immigration in the US, the immigration officer would have confirmed that you had an ESTA, and thus you were allowed to enter the country.

If you did not have an approved ESTA you would not have been allowed board the plane, and if somehow you had made it onto the plane you would not have been allowed past immigration. Once you are past immigration your ESTA is no longer relevant - instead the stamp in your passport becomes the proof that you are allowed be in the country, and controls when you must depart by.

Taking a print-out of the ESTA is a good idea, but it's simply a backup in case there are any issues - in general the entire ESTA process is automated, and as you've experienced, once approved is completely transparent.

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