Several US airport immigration queues seem to differentiate between "first-time ESTA visitors" and "returning ESTA visitors" – what exactly is the definition for that distinction? This is my third trip to the US, I have had fingerprints taken before, however all my previous trips to the US were with an older passport and an older ESTA.

(Bonus question: How much faster can the "returning ESTA" line at EWR be expected to be vs. "first-time ESTA"?)

  • First time is pretty clear. If it's not your first time visiting then you're a returning visitor
    – Midavalo
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 2:11
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    @Midavalo The OP is asking whether it's first time to the US, first time using a particular ESTA, or something else. Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 6:51
  • It's not a legal thing, but is something the airport set up. Ask the airport which line you should get in when you get there. Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 14:13
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    Similar old question: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/78007/… not marking as duplicate as it’s a bit old, but edits and answers say (and other sources say so as well) that it depends on the airport. Welcome to the wonderful world of CBP!
    – jcaron
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 11:30

2 Answers 2


According to my experience it is "first time using a particular ESTA". I used a second ESTA with the same passport but the machines in the "returning ESTA" path refused me.

Update with more details.

  1. First visit on first ESTA. Fingerprints taken by CDB officer.
  2. Second visit on first ESTA. Returning ESTA worked fine. (Don't remember whether the machine took fingerprints)
  3. First visit on second ESTA. The machines at returning ESTA path gave me a receipt but it was clearly invalid, I think it had a big cross over it. Had to go back to the other line.
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    Did you have your fingerprints taken on previous visits?
    – jcaron
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 8:03
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    @jcaron I updated the answer
    – Anders
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 9:29
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    Did you use the same passport or a new one?
    – jcaron
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 11:24
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    @jcaron same passport, so the only difference between my second and third visit is the ESTA
    – Anders
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 11:28
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    Yes, X receipt does not mean you were ineligible to use the gate. Either something flagged on your record or you were randomly selected for manual inspection (and you'll probably never know which). I've gotten an X receipt as a US citizen. Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 13:45

Returning ESTA means you've previously entered as a VWP visitor since 2008 with your face and fingerprints on record. Depending on the software version, the kiosks may or may not recognise you if on a new passport. These days they mostly should, and apparently the trend is now for "returning ESTA" to be scrapped, with all VWP visitors eligible to use kiosks

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