13

An ESTA allows me to stay in the US for up to 90 days and it is valid for two years. I see two ways to interpret this:

  1. The ESTA expires when 90 total days in the US or two years from approval have passed. If I have made four 20-day visits in the first year, I need to apply for a new ESTA to do the same thing the next year.
  2. The ESTA is valid for the whole two years. There is no strict limit to how much time I can spend in the US, just that each visit be 90 days or less. (Of course the amount of travel has to be within reason; I make business trips, but I don't live there.)

Which one is correct? Or if neither is, what is the limit exactly? Most importantly, where at the ESTA pages (or some other equally official source) does it say so? I didn't manage to find any reliable information on this.

For simplicity, assume that my passport is valid for well over two years, so that plays no role.

Background

When I first got to know ESTA, my impression was that it's obviously option 1. Option 2 never crossed my mind. Of course it's safe to play assuming option 1, but I prefer not to reapply unnecessarily.

I recall receiving an expiry notice about an ESTA in the past, but getting close to 90 days on a single ESTA doesn't seem to have triggered it. This makes me think that option 2 might be the case. I'd prefer to rely on official documentation rather than guesswork.

It's apparently enough that I enter the US before my ESTA expires, but that doesn't answer my question yet.

DO I NEED TO APPLY FOR A NEW ESTA IF MY CURRENT TRAVEL AUTHORIZATION WILL EXPIRE WHILE I'M IN THE UNITED STATES?

No. ESTA travel authorization needs only to be valid upon arrival in the United States.

The most relevant questions on the ESTA FAQ page don't seem to touch upon my question. This is the closest to an answer I found, but it's not quite explicit:

WHEN DO I NEED TO REAPPLY FOR AN ESTA?

(…)

Travel authorization approvals will typically be granted for a period of two years or until the applicant's passport expires, whichever is sooner. (…)

22

It is #2. An explanation of the concepts involved will hopefully make this clearer.

ESTA stands for "Electronic System for Travel Authorization." It is not a visa, but is rather a system that screens people who seek to travel under the Visa Waiver Program to ensure they are eligible. The actual program under which you enter the United States after receiving an ESTA is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows eligible citizens of certain countries to stay in the US for up to 90 days for business or pleasure without a visa.

So, what's going on? The Visa Waiver Program came first, and that's the actual set of rules under which you enter the United States. It allows for stays up to 90 days (with the important caveat that trips to Canada, Mexico, and "adjacent islands" don't reset the clock). As we discuss in How soon can I re-enter the USA having stayed for 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program?, you can make as many such trips as you want, as long as they are consistent with a permissible purpose and you don't cause the officer to think you're trying to live here (spending more time in the US than you do outside would be a large red flag that would get you more questions, for instance). That's a VWP rule and has nothing to do with ESTA.

ESTA is an additional layer on top of that, which was added much later. It requires you fill out the form online, pay the fee, and be approved before you can travel to the US by air or sea under the VWP. Think of it as a security check that ensures you aren't on any watchlists and haven't done anything that would make you likely to be sent back if you try to enter the United States. The ESTA rules say that this approval is valid for two years (unless one of the below circumstances happen, at which point you must reapply sooner). It is still valid for two years no matter how long you spend in the United States during that time. ESTA wasn't added to limit how long you can spend in the US, but rather to ensure that you are vetted more thoroughly before you arrive.

So in summary, you've got ESTA, which lasts two years, and the Visa Waiver Program, which allows visits up to 90 days at a time (subject to being "reasonable"). Spending more time in the US doesn't cause your ESTA to expire any quicker.

The information on the ESTA help page under "What is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)?" helps make this more clear:

Approved ESTA applications are valid for a period of two years, or until the passport expires, whichever comes first, and multiple trips to the United States without the traveler having to re-apply for another ESTA. When traveling to the U.S. with the approved ESTA, you may only stay for up to 90 days at a time - and there should be a reasonable amount of time between visits so that the CBP Officer does not think you are trying to live here. There is no set requirement for how long you must wait between visits.

Travelers whose ESTA applications are approved, but whose passports will expire in less than two years, will receive an ESTA valid until the passport's expiration date.

A new ESTA authorization is required if:

  • You are issued a new passport,
  • You change your name (first and/or last)
  • You change your gender (ESTA does not currently have a gender X to choose from on the application. It is suggested that the traveler choose whichever choice they feel most comfortable with. ESTA will not be denied solely on the gender chosen on the application.)
  • Your country of citizenship changes
  • Your circumstances change, e.g., you are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude or you develop a contagious disease. Such a change may require you to get a visa to travel to the U.S. You must re-apply and your application must reflect the change in your circumstances or you may be denied entry upon arrival in the United States. More information about other ineligibilities can be found on the U.S. State Department website

DHS recommends that you apply for ESTA authorization as soon as you know you will be traveling to the United States under the VWP. If your ESTA expires while in the U.S., it will not affect your departure.

See also this page from US Customs and Border Protection, which says much the same thing, though it is easier to link directly.

If you're unsure, you can always choose "Check ESTA Status" on the official ESTA website (be on the lookout for scams and imposters) to verify that your ESTA is still valid.

  • 3
    @JoonasIlmavirta The distinction confuses a lot of people. It's common to hear someone say "I came to the US on an ESTA," which is wrong, but logical, since the ESTA form is the thing they filled out to travel and the name people commonly see. It makes more sense if you know the VWP came first and ESTA is a newer extra step on top of it, but that's not something that's obvious to most visitors. It would also make more sense if the rules were less confusing, but I digress. – Zach Lipton Jul 4 '17 at 12:18
  • 3
    And this distinction - rather the lack of knowledge about this distinction - led a colleague to book a flight from Vancouver to Seattle last year, because in order to "enter the US on an ESTA", he would need to travel by plane or vessel, not by car. Only now I understand, that he could have just shown up at the border in the car and sought to enter the US under the VWP... – Sabine Jul 4 '17 at 12:46
  • 3
    @Dorothy to what end? – phoog Jul 5 '17 at 5:52
  • 1
    The confusion is not helped by airline personnel. Whenever I board a flight towards the US, I'm asked if I'm travelling on visa or ESTA. In US customs and immigration they also speak of ESTA instead of VWP. Perhaps they are trying to keep things simple by calling the whole system by a single name (ESTA). Or perhaps they are confused too... – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 5 '17 at 6:09
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta I agree it is not helpful, but from the airline employee's point of view, a traveler from a VWP country must have one of two prerequisites: a visa or ESTA. – phoog Jul 5 '17 at 19:13
3

It's your second point. The ESTA is a replacement for the paper forms that used to be given out on aircraft to passengers eligible for a visa waiver.

So it's not the same thing as a visa. The ESTA will last for 2 years and you can get multiple visas (waivers) during that period.

  • 1
    Thanks! I suspected this might be the case, but I was unsure. Do you have an official source to confirm this claim? – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 4 '17 at 8:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.