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I'm a European citizen (from Germany) and I have a flight from Germany to Chile via Puerto Rico soon. I have a three hour stay at the airport and need to change the airplane (and flight operating company as well).

Do I need to apply for an ESTA beforehand to be allowed to enter US territory?

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Yes, you do need an ESTA. Puerto Rico has the same visa requirements as the mainland US (= ESTA needed for EU citizens), and like all other US airports, San Juan's airport does not recognize the concept of visa-free transit.

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    I just confirmed with the flight company, they state: "[...] if you do not register for the ESTA and (TSA) Secure Flight programs, you will be refused entry to the USA (and also transit through the USA)." – Stockfisch Nov 9 '13 at 10:07
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Yes. When it comes to ESTA all US territories are treated like mainland US. Therefore you always need to apply for ESTA.

I'm from Germany myself and I always needed an ESTA number to transit through the US.

Here are two links that should help (auf Deutsch ;)

http://esta-usa-visum.de/puerto-rico-guam-und

http://esta-usa-visum.de/transit-%C3%BCber-die-usa

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