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ESTA website has this alert on top in red.

REMINDER: Apply for ESTA no later than 72 hours before departing for the United States. Real-time approvals will no longer be available and arriving at the airport without a previously approved ESTA will likely result in being denied boarding.

Why is that so? ESTA approval previously used to be granted within minutes if not seconds. Is this a generic statement or a policy change?

This press release does confirm the policy change but does not list any reason as to why this was changed.

Due to changes in ESTA application processing, real-time approvals will no longer be available. Citizens of participating Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries traveling to the United States are strongly encouraged to apply for an ESTA at the time of booking their trip and no later than 72 hours prior to departure. Applicants who apply on the same day of their flight’s departure risk not having an approved ESTA prior to their scheduled departure. International travelers without an approved ESTA will not be authorized to board their flight.

(the emphasis is mine)

  • Speculation: the changes might be delivered the distributed computer infrastructure (e.g. airlines, ground services) in batch. Batch processes occur usually overnight, but in case a computer system fails there is the need for the technicians to work on the issue, get it fixed, and wait for the next batch. – usr-local-ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ Mar 4 at 16:57
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    "ESTA approval previously used to be granted within minutes if not seconds." Usually, yes. Not always. The 72 hours is in part to accommodate for those situations that aren't the norm. – Mast Mar 4 at 16:58
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    The statement doesn't preclude granting an ESTA within minutes, if not seconds. It just doesn't guarantee that fast of a turnaround. – A C Mar 4 at 20:30
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    I don’t think it means that. Apply no later than 72 hours before departing looks like clear and strong instructions rather than a disclaimer for service guarantees. – Hanky Panky Mar 5 at 2:16
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The reason is right there. You don’t see it because you’re expecting something elaborate.

Due to changes in ESTA application processing

That’s the reason. They don’t need to explain the details of the change.

https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/national-media-release/cbp-reminds-travelers-allow-72-hours-esta

  • Expectations... – Harper Mar 4 at 14:46
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    I wonder if there are actually any changes in place. Someone who's recently applied for an ESTA could confirm how much it took for an approval to be received. – JonathanReez Mar 4 at 21:03
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    @JonathanReez You would need more than one data point to be able to draw meaningful conclusions. – cHiEf Immigration vIoLaTer Mar 4 at 21:07
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    @ThEiLlEgAlaLiEn if at least one person gets an instant approval then "Real-time approvals will no longer be available" is wrong. – JonathanReez Mar 4 at 21:08
  • @JonathanReez Turns out I last applied for an ESTA... the day before the press release linked in the question. Doh! – David Richerby Mar 4 at 22:21
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Not an official reason but I've had an ESTA delayed because of payment difficulties. I'd used the same card to pay for a plane ticket, a seat upgrade and an ESTA in rapid succession, all to US companies; my bank flagged that as potential fraud and refused the ESTA payment. The next morning, I got an email from CBP saying that I couldn't have my ESTA until I'd paid for it.

So it certainly seems prudent for CBP to recommend that people don't apply right at the last minute. Even completely routine applications can get delayed. As far as I recall, CBP have always advised people to apply at least 72 hours in advance of their planned travel.

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    Hmm. Actually, I'm not sure this really answers the question. Downvote if you think it doesn't; I'll delete it if people think it's not relevant. – David Richerby Mar 4 at 14:24
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    It doesn't answer the question but it's still good/relevant information... if you end up deleting it maybe put it into a comment. – Mehrdad Mar 4 at 21:59
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    +1 for 'CBP have always advised...' - I remember flying to the US in 2012-13 and the warning/advise being there. – Rogem Mar 5 at 6:42

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