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I am travelling to the US next week and want to check I have it right about how the ESTA system works.

Other answers like this this one, describe what the process is and how to apply, but do not explain how it is actually implemented; what exactly you do at customs or what you need to print or bring.

I have a UK passport. I have registered with ESTA online and submitted the form. My application was approved and when I go on the ESTA website, it says Approved.

So is that it? I just get off the plane and go up the immigration officer with my passport? I don't need any stamp, any e-mail, to quote any number or anything? It's all done electronically?

Believe it or not; I can't find any definitive description of the process online. There are just statements like, "You must get ESTA approval before travelling, etc." - statements that assume you know what that means, exactly. So if anyone has recently travelled to the US using ESTA, I'd be interested to hear if I have it correct.

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Yep, that's it.

You apply online and get approved, and pay online.

You can print it off if it gives you some more anxiety, but literally when I've used it, I walk up, the official goes "do you have a visa or are you on ESTA?", and he scans the passport and has always found it. I've usually had the approval number or whatever on me, but I've never needed to show it.

The airline might ask for evidence of it, however.

It's pretty smooth, I get more questions about what I plan on doing in the US, rather than how I enter it.

Note that it's not a guarantee that you'll be granted access into the US.

As an aside it's reasonably easy to get info on this online from the official sites:

From CBP.gov:

It is important to PRINT a copy of the document for your records. The printout is not required upon arrival into the United States, as the officers have the information electronically. Some airlines require the printout upon check-in, please check with your respective airline.

and also from CBP.gov:

Do I need to bring a printed copy of my ESTA application with me to the airport?

U.S. regulation does NOT require a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) traveler to present a printed copy of the ESTA authorization page in order to travel. However, it is recommended that you print a copy for your records. Also, some airlines may ask you to bring a copy, in which case you should print it out. If you applied for ESTA and you have forgotten your application number, you may retrieve the application through the ESTA website by entering the applicants name, date of birth, passport number and passport issuing country.

  • Thanks! I guess I am having trouble believing it is so easy! The last time I went to the US (20 years ago), I had to send away my passport to get a big fancy visa that took up a whole page. Isn't the internet wonderful... – Oscar Bravo Jul 27 '16 at 13:21
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    @OwenBoyle: It must have been more than 20 years ago, because UK citizens have been covered by the VWP since 1988. The ESTA was only started in 2008 -- between 1988 and 2008 there were no advance formalities for UK citizens on short visits at all. – Henning Makholm Jul 27 '16 at 13:35
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    @HenningMakholm it could have been 20 years ago if the traveler was not eligible for the VWP or chose to get a visa despite being eligible. – phoog Jul 27 '16 at 14:13
  • The irony is I'm no longer eligible for ESTA. Stupid rule changes :/ – Mark Mayo Jul 27 '16 at 14:31
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    It's worth carrying the paper copy for you, I doubt I'm the only person who's ever turned up at JFK Customs and Immigration just as their computer system went down! – Jon Story Jul 27 '16 at 15:18
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The ESTA system is pretty much all done electronically - you apply at least 72 hours before you depart, then simply arrive. Obviously you need to present the passport you used to apply for the ESTA waiver.

However there are a few things I think it's good to be aware of, insomuch as they applied to me when I travelled earlier this year - the situation may have changed by the time you read this:

  1. If you apply for an ESTA for transit, then within the ESTA validity period you wish to visit the US, then you'll need to reapply for the ESTA waiver and pay the fee again. Sadly, although you can change a few details of a current ESTA, you can't change the type. If you find yourself transiting on the way back less than 3 days following a visit, then I'm not sure what you do! Perhaps the answer is to always apply for visit, just in case.

  2. When you arrive, there's probably a queue with a sign that says something like "queue here if you've got an ESTA and have visited the US in the last two years" plus a few other conditions. This is an accelerated border process for people who have already been through the ESTA arrival process at least once, recently. However, be aware that this isn't the whole story - don't do what I did and stand in that queue for thirty minutes only to find out that you need to have visited within the last two years on the same passport - and that doesn't include renewals! Almost missed my connecting flight.

  3. It's always a good idea to carry hard-copy facsimiles of all travel documentation. You may never need it, but it seems sensible to me to carry them.

The ESTA program is pretty good though - sometime prior to this travellers to the US from my country had to travel all the way to the one and only US Embassy in the country to get permission to visit, which in some cases might take an entire day of domestic travel and was a significant nuisance.

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    If you're going to apply for ESTA, definitely apply as early as possible, as soon as you know you're likely to travel to the US. Try to avoid waiting until "72 hours" before departure. While it's technically possible to apply and receive ESTA approval any time up until you check in for the flight (as little as 60 minutes before departure) and certain airports even have kiosks for this purpose, a few applicants may not get an immediate response. – Michael Hampton Jul 28 '16 at 5:38
  • And if you're refused, you need time to make arrangements for a visa (according to CBP, many people who are rejected by the ESTA system are granted US visas upon application), and you'll want more than 72 hours for that. The ESTA system can sometimes refuse people due to cases of mistaken identity, so it could happen even if there's nothing negative in your history. Doing the ESTA application doesn't do much harm (you just "waste" a bit of the 2 year validity) and could save your trip if there's a problem. – Zach Lipton Jul 28 '16 at 5:43
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    Does it actually matter that you can't change the type of ESTA that you have? It generally seems that there's no assumption that the info you supplied for the initial ESTA application is still accurate. – CMaster Jul 28 '16 at 12:00
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    @meowsqueak the query was more if the CBP actually care if it's a "transit" or "stay" ESTA, rather than who it might effect (they generally seem to not care about you updating the ESTA for subsequent visits, for example) – CMaster Jul 28 '16 at 12:35
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    @meowsqueak this is wrong. First of all, if you are authorized to visit, you are authorized to transit. People holding B visas do not need to get C visas to transit. So under your assumption that there are separate "types" of ESTA, it would not be necessary to keep switching. Second, the assumption itself is incorrect: According to help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/1073/~/…, you need a new ESTA if answers to VWP eligibility questions change, but "are you in transit" does not affect VWP eligibility. – phoog Jul 28 '16 at 13:43

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