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I have an ESTA for the US, valid until Mar 20, 2020. I have confirmed the ESTA is still valid on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site. However, the airline I have a flight booked with will not allow me to check in online due to not having a valid ESTA/VISA/etc.

Does this mean I'm not going to be allowed on the flight or is it simply a problem with the online check-in? And if I'm allowed on the flight, should I expect issues on arrival in the US?

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    Don’t worry. It’s more of an airline system issue. If your ESTA is valid they will be able to verify it when you go for counter check in. – Hanky Panky Oct 30 '18 at 14:17
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    It could be a passport number mismatch. You may want to double-check that you've entered the passport number correctly both in ESTA and in the airline's system. @HankyPanky aside from a number mismatch or a communication error, I can't imagine what would allow the ground staff to match the ESTA when the online system could not. Do you have an idea about that? – phoog Oct 30 '18 at 15:26
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    @phoog, I've checked and verified that they indeed match. I've used the ESTA without issue in the past. I spoke to the travel agency and they said the same as Hanky Panky did. I'll await answers, but if none come, I'll add my own answer with how it went and any information the check-in counter might give. – William Mariager Oct 30 '18 at 16:10
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    Have you tried calling the airline and you know, asking them? – DonQuiKong Oct 30 '18 at 22:03
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    @WilliamMariager regarding this interesting question. Did the online system, on the airline web site literally say "YOUR ESTA IS INVALID". Or did it say "online check in not available for you, check in at the airport". Thanks for letting us know! – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 7:17
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Online check-in systems often simply don't work as well as they are supposed to. I fly very often from Europe to the US, and my success rate on checking-in online is maybe about 60 %. It highly depends on what airline you are flying as well. I even called an airline at some point, and they confirmed that I cannot check-in online, but couldn't tell me why. It is not necessarily related to a second screening, though there is a non-vanishing probability that you cannot check-in because the system volunteered you to be screened.

Usually, once you are at the airport, all these problems go away. It's still a nuisance for you, since you have to go to the airport earlier if you cannot check-in online. And nowadays there are only very few check-in desks open, since everybody can check-in online... well, in principle at least.

I once even made it to the US border without a valid ESTA. They allowed me to apply for an ESTA while at immigration. I do not suggest to try this, though!

  • I marked this the answer, since this was exactly my experience. The online system didn't work for whatever reason, but when I arrived at the airport to check in, there was no mention of issues with my ESTA and I was let through with no questions or extra screening or anything. – William Mariager Nov 4 '18 at 22:42
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I couldn't check in online a couple weeks ago because I was selected for extra screening (Secondary Security Screening Selection ). I think that's what's probably also happening to you. You can simply check in at the airport.

From what I can tell, a few people on each flight to the US are selected this way. I asked the gate agent and the selection is supposedly random, which might not be completely true from what I read online e.g. your name matches with someone on a no-fly list, you have a one-way ticket or similar things can supposedly trigger it. The screening itself is actually pretty benign. They swiped my carry on and shoes for explosives. It was probably about 3 mins overall. (I flew out of FRA).

  • SSSS is normally a fairly painless process, but it is wise to budget a little extra time for it just in case your local security people decide to be unreasonable that day. OTOH, for an international flight, you should already be budgeting a lot of time anyway. – Kevin Oct 31 '18 at 5:52
  • @lucas ... I'm curious actually on the airline web site, did it literally say "You have been selected for extra screening?" Or did it just say "You can't checkin online" .. ? thanks! – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 7:20
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    @Fattie: I am pretty sure it only said (I am paraphrasing): "You can't check-in online, please see check-in desk". I flew with Delta Airlines. – Lucas Oct 31 '18 at 8:14
  • "You can't check-in online, please see check-in desk". that makes perfect sense, Lucas. that is very common, it just means they have to physically look at your documents; it does not mean your ESTA is invalid. (Note that even if your Esta was invalid, for some reason I'm pretty sure it would not specifically state "Esta invalid", it just says "call the airline".) – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 10:28
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I had the same problem last year. When we got to the check in desk they first assumed we didn't have our ESTA. After we convinced them our ESTA was in order we spent over 30 minutes waiting while the attendant made calls. In the end everything worked out but I would recommend reserving a bit more to check in.

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    Hi martijnve - welcome new user. When you had this problem: regarding the online system. Did the online system, on the airline web site literally say "YOUR ESTA IS INVALID". Or did it say "online check in not available for you, check in at the airport". Thanks for letting us know! – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 7:16
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    It did not. We had a connection in Iceland (coming from Amsterdam) and the system could check us in for the first flight but not for the one to NY. Given that information we assumed it had something to do with US security checks. I think the exact text of the message is probably determined by the airline so not necessarily comparable. (We had Iceland Air) – martijnve Oct 31 '18 at 10:05
  • OK so it did not say "Your ESTA is invalid." – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 10:27
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It's totally, 100%, normal that airline web systems say "You cannot check in online".

Quite simply, you just check in "at the desk" at the airport, like in the old days.

There is absolutely nothing to worry about.

It literally means:

the check-in agents need to eyeball your documents before they can stamp you DOCS-OK.

That's all it means, nothing else.

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    Which also means (just to point it out explicitly), to have a printout of the ESTA confirmation with you, when you check in at the airport. – dunni Oct 30 '18 at 18:57
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    It's not normal for a system to tell you that your valid ESTA is invalid, no. This post doesn't really answer the question, it just tries to assure the OP that this circumstance is commonplace but doesn't say why or provide any rationale or address some of the worries in the question (and, as other answerers have covered, there are indeed a few extra steps you ought to consider taking, for example leaving extra time). – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 30 '18 at 22:06
  • Light, I didn't read it like that. I believe (1) the airline system is (as usual) saying "you can't check in online and (2) the OP is assuming that the reason is the Esta is "invalid". – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 7:12
  • Your comment that the answer "doesn't explain" is confusing. (As it says) for some flyers "the check-in agents need to eyeball your documents before they can stamp you DOCS-OK". ie for some flyers it's OK for the info to be entered computer-wise, but for some flyers "the check-in agents need to eyeball your documents before they can stamp you DOCS-OK". ie, Timatec insists on EYEBALL CHECK for some of us. – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 7:14
  • Not that it matters but the other 3 answers say exactly the same thing. – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 7:15
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I don't think I ever have been able to check-in online when going to USA. To be able to check-in I needed to provide an address for where I was staying the first night, I think that is a US requirement before check-in, and the online check-in didn't have support for that. The check-in automates at the airport have support for adding address, and the check-in at the counter have support for that to.

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